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The rebuilding process begins for El Molcajete owner, staff and patrons after devastating winter fire

Just before the College’s winter break, El Molcajete in downtown Grinnell caught fire on Dec. 17. The building was a complete loss.

Héctor Corona, the manager of the restaurant, explained that the cause of the fire is still being investigated.

“What actually happened is still curious because the firefighters didn’t find anything wrong with [the restaurant]. It looks like something with the electricity on top of the dining room area, or [it] could have been the furnace. It was a two-month-old furnace so it was pretty brand new,” Corona said.

Thankfully, “it didn’t spread out to the whole restaurant and neither to [the] neighbors,” Corona said. It was largely the dining area that was affected by the fire and “everything else [in] the restaurant — the kitchen [and] the storage room — is okay.”

The plan is to rebuild the restaurant, but Corona explained that the time period is up in the air.

“I have talked to the owner  [of the building] and he said he was going to try to rebuild. They started to demolish the dining room area last Friday. He doesn’t have a date to rebuild. He said this would be done in six months. Probably more, probably less — you never know,” Corona said.

In the meantime, Corona said that the Grinnell community has been very helpful and generous.

“There have been some of the people gathering some money for us so it feels good for us. Like for me, I’m the manager, I have to pay my rent, my bills. The chef has two little children and his wife in his own home too and he pays bills and rent. So, it was a nice thing from all the people here in Grinnell to help us with that money,” Corona said.

There is a long period of time without work before rebuilding. Corona said that “if not for [the community’s help] we wouldn’t be here right now, we would have to move out of town to work somewhere else because we’re used to doing the Mexican restaurant. Going to another place to be a server or a chef would be kind of weird because we don’t even know the menu of that place.”

He said that this initiative was started by the Rev. Wendy Abrahamson at Saint Paul’s Church and parishioners at the First Presbyterian Church in Grinnell. Community members continue to help the business.

In addition, the restaurant wants to make sure to keep some of the workers, like the chef, paid because the chef is “the head of the restaurant,” Corona said. The insurance company is still investigating but may start paying the employees.

“Hopefully the insurance works out for now to get most of the employees get paid, like the chef. We can’t find another chef that good so we don’t want them to leave because the chef is basically the head of the restaurant. If he’s not there the restaurant would be different.”

It has been a bit longer than a month but the investigation is a long process, with seven insurance companies and one private adjuster investigating.

On a positive note, Corona explained that the dining area of the restaurant may look a little different when it opens back up.

“We were trying to change some stuff [in] the dining room area. We were thinking about getting nicer booths instead of those weird looking ones. If we reopen, all the customers will be amazed,” Corona said.

To help, Corona said that Grinnellians can come to support the restaurant when it reopens.

“When we open … people coming to eat, that would support us for sure.”

When the restaurant does eventually reopen it awaits a warm welcome from Grinnellians, both from the College and the surrounding community. The response to the fire and the misfortune facing the staff of El Molcajete from the community is a silver lining in this unfortunate situation.

El Molcajete, a downtown Grinnell restaurant, was damaged beyond repair in a fire on December 17. Now the owner. manager and employees of the restaurant must begin the process of rebuilding the restaurant and their lives.


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