TAMPA — After a Tampa Fire Rescue captain was forced out of his job in 2005, he said he poured everything he had into the Nuevo Cafe in South Tampa.
He worked there five days a week serving devil crabs, Cuban sandwiches, beans and rice just like his grandparents and other family members had in the restaurant business before him.
"It was something that I had always wanted to do to begin with," said Al Suarez, "and it had a great following."
A fire early Thursday destroyed that business, causing at least $500,000 in damage. Fire officials blame an electrical short at the cafe, 3301 S Dale Mabry Highway. They say the fire started in the right front portion of the building when a decorative light malfunctioned.
A passerby noticed the fire and called authorities. The restaurant was closed at the time, and no one was injured.
Suarez said he has talked to the landlord and insurance company and plans to rebuild.
Suarez, a 20-year veteran of Tampa Fire Rescue and former president of the firefighters union, was fired in 2005 for his role in a firehouse photo shoot featuring two strippers. A six-week investigation into the Oct. 17, 2004, shoot at Fire Station 21 in New Tampa concluded that Suarez organized the shoot with two strippers who performed weeks later at his bachelor party.
On Thursday, arriving firefighters contained the fire to the front of the Nuevo Cafe, sparing the restaurant's kitchen, Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said in a statement.
"They really did just a fantastic job with the fire, Suarez said of the firefighters. "My hat's off to them."
Tampa Fire Marshal Todd Spear saw no need for an independent investigation into the fire's origin given Suarez's past with the fire department, Wade said. Spear's office sent three investigators to the cafe, who all ruled the fire an accident. Witness statements also back that assessment, Wade said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.