BRANDON — Mother's Day ended with a beeline for the exits for scores of diners after a fire broke out in a crowded restaurant Sunday evening.
"It was a great Mother's Day — until the fire," said Jodie Rubio, 65, standing outside Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant with her family, other diners and about a dozen wait staffers. "This is one Mother's Day I won't soon forget."
More than 200 people were inside the restaurant at 11105 Causeway Blvd. in Brandon, but all got out and no one was injured, a spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue said.
About 7:30 p.m., the manager smelled smoke and noticed a haze in the dining room. Then the fire alarm sounded.
The restaurant is in a free-standing building, not connected to other businesses in a retail center.
"I smelled smoke, and at first I didn't pay any attention to it because there was a birthday party nearby and they had candles on the cake," said Raquel Burt, who was with nine family members, including Rubio, when the alarm sounded.
"It was a little scary," she said.
Firefighters were able to douse the blaze in about 20 minutes while customers and staffers milled around outside, hoping to return to retrieve personal items. The cause had not yet been determined.
Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera said the fire seemed contained to a wall on the building's west side. At first, firefighters couldn't tell where it originated and no flames were visible.
"When they put their hands on the wall, that's when they could feel the heat," he said.
Firefighters from six companies in Brandon and Valrico responded to the blaze. They punched holes in the wall and roof to extinguish the flames.
The national chain restaurant has nine locations in Florida, according to its website. The Brandon location was scheduled to be open Sunday until 9 p.m.
One of the restaurant's busiest days, the family-style Italian restaurant was packed when Rubio and her family arrived around 5:30 p.m.
They made it through a dinner of chicken alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs and other dishes but hadn't paid the bill when the alarm sounded and manager Jeff Miles showed up at their table asking them to evacuate.
The patrons were outside when the first engine companies started arriving.
"It all was very orderly," Burt said, adding that the restaurant didn't charge for the meal.
"I felt bad for the wait staff," she said. "I had to chase down our waitress to give her a tip. I felt bad for her."