The founder of Ben's Family Restaurant sat in the parking lot Tuesday morning and surveyed the damage caused the night before when a fire tore through the iconic eatery. ¶ Memories from nearly a quarter of a century of running the restaurant filled Ben Crisler's mind as he took in the sight of the burnt building. Though he sold the restaurant in 2005 to another family, the loss of the establishment was still emotional. ¶ "After owning and operating it almost 25 years, it kind of grabs you a little bit," Crisler said. "We spent many days, many hours there until we sold it in 2005. It was kind of like losing your animal or even a child."
Customers were eating dinner in the restaurant at 704 E Brandon Blvd. Monday when they saw smoke and heard a crashing in the ceiling around 5 p.m., Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera said.
The restaurant, the oldest in Brandon, was evacuated, and no one was injured as firefighters fought the blaze and prevented it from extending to a neighboring restaurant, Rivera said.
The cause of the fire, which started in the attic above the kitchen, was still under investigation as the SouthShore & Brandon Times went to press Wednesday. The commercial kitchen and appliances were examined and determined not to be the source of the fire that caused $900,000 damage and likely destroyed the restaurant.
"It makes you feel real sad," Crisler said. "You also feel bad for the owners and the employees who work there now and are out of a job, I'm sure for awhile. To me, it looks like the building will have to be knocked down and rebuilt. I don't know if the owners will do that or just give it up."
A representative for the Mohammed family, which owns the restaurant, said the owners were not prepared to talk at this time.
"It's not an easy thing to talk about after you spent most of your life there, day in and day out, and I know they feel the same way," Crisler said. "Hopefully they'll decide to have it rebuilt. We'll just have to wait and see."
Meanwhile, patrons of the popular diner lamented its loss on Facebook and other social networks. It particularly impacted the Greater Brandon Kiwanis Club, which had met every Thursday morning at Ben's for more than five years. Kiwanis relocated its meeting to the Eagles this week, but will now search for a new home.
"It's a tragic loss to the community," said Kiwanis board member Lynn Langowski. "It's an amazing staff that's suddenly without jobs. Our hearts simply ache for the owners, staff and community to have lost such a great community landmark.
"I know that while we met there every week, there were just as many patrons who dined there weekly, if not daily."
Longtime Brandon resident Terri Gianino said she dined at Ben's at least one month and had just gone there Sunday for breakfast, which she deemed the best in Brandon.
"It saddens me because it's been there for so long," Gianino said. "It had great food. The employees there were great. They were very thorough and wrote down exactly how you ordered the food, which I thought was amazing.
"The owners were great. They were very friendly. They always asked if you enjoyed the meal and I believe the whole family worked there. I'm hoping they rebuild."
Crisler said he sold the restaurant to Majeed Mohammed almost nine years ago.
At the time, Mohammed wanted to keep the vibe and interior of the restaurant much as it had been under Crisler, so he asked to keep some of the paintings and decorations that had filled the restaurant. This included two large paintings of Crisler and his wife that hung near the entryway.
About a month ago, Mohammed's son wanted to redecorate and told Crisler he could pick up the paintings and other decorations. Crisler cleared them out of the restaurant only weeks ago, he said.
Sitting in the parking lot Tuesday, Crisler was overcome with sadness. If the owners choose not to rebuild it, a part of his family's history is lost. If they do rebuild, it likely won't be in the same style, he thought.
He couldn't help but remember all the hours he put in over the years with his wife and children. Or of the regulars who stopped by frequently, whether they lived down the street or were snowbirds on vacation.
And then there were the employees who were out of work now, including some who worked there for more than 20 years, dating to when Crisler was the owner.
And he had no doubt that the current owners, who had turned it into a family business of their own, were grappling with the loss.
A lot of people, he thought, would be impacted by the loss of the restaurant he opened in 1981.
"All those things run through your mind," Crisler said. "When I pass here again on highway 60 going up to Walmart, it won't be the same not seeing Ben's Restaurant and all the cars in the parking lot. That's a hard thing to think about."
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this story. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.