With the one-year anniversary of the fire that ravaged the Humpty Dumpty diner fast approaching, customers are chomping at the bit for the popular breakfast-and-lunch diner to reopen.
But those eager diners will have to wait another few months as owner Randy Hodges aims to have the restaurant open by February 2013.
“We’re sad it’s taking this long,” said Stephen De Sena, a Nevada City resident who has dined at the restaurant for 40 years. “It’s one of the last bastions in Nevada County that represents what the county was when we moved out here in 71.”
The restaurant, located at 1711 E. Main St., was significantly damaged in a Jan. 7 fire. Rags used to clean the grill, that were then tossed into an area at the back of the building, spontaneously combusted in a not-uncommon process called oxidation. The Grass Valley Fire Department ruled the incident an accident.
With the diner closed at 3 p.m. Saturdays, the building was vacant when the blaze sparked at about 8:30 p.m.
After two months of waiting for insurance approval, Hodges and some of his cooks began demolition of the burnt husk that remained of their kitchen, Hodges said.
The months of rebuilding since then have been stressful, Hodges noted, but at the same time, they have been a “nice break from the daily problems of running a restaurant,” he said.
Customers have knocked on windows and gone through the drive through, hoping Humpty Dumpty’s kitchen is cooking again, said Karibeth Hodges, the owner’s wife, who also works at the diner.
“We’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone again,” she said.
Humpty Dumpty’s roots in the community go back more than five decade to when Hodges’ grandfather, L.C. Hodges, started a hamburger and ice cream stand in downtown Grass Valley.
In 1970, Hodges’s children, Burney and Geanine Hodges, bought the downtown shop from their father. It was moved to the current location in 1979.
Shortly thereafter, Randy Hodges and now-deceased brother Allyn took over Humpty Dumpty in 1979, awaiting their brother, Robert, to graduate from high school and join them.
“It’s hometown run by homegrown owners,” De Sena said. “Theres a lot of history there.”
Part of Humpty Dumpty’s loyal customer base can be attributed to the staff who interacted with diners, said Penn Vally resident Linda Blunk. Most of those workers have been getting paychecks from Hodges’ insurance during the rebuild, he said.
Shirley Tellam started working for Hodges’ grandfather five decades ago and has been serving food to diners ever since.
“I feel pretty blessed to have been there this long. It’s my life. It’s hard to see it closed,” Tellam said. “I’ve really missed being there with all the people. Everybody every day asks me when it is going to open.”
In the year that it’s been closed, Tellam said that 10 regular elderly customers have passed away.
“We’re just so thankful for our customers,” Hodges said. “We appreciate their continued support.”
Given its loyal fan base, Tellam, De Sena and Hodges are optimistic that many of Humpty Dumpty’s customers will return.
When the restaurant does open, Hodges said that although many things will be just like they were, there will be a few changes.
One of the most obvious changes is the upstairs dining area. The fire decimated much of the structure’s roof, so when Hodges rebuilt, he increased the second story to allow for large parties to make use of it. He expects this will help with breakfast clubs and meetings, as well as birthday parties and other special events.
The menu will also likely get some new items, many taking advantage of the new slow-cook oven, Hodges said. Some of those items will include trip-tips and chicken concoctions.
“We’re going to be cooking a lot of our own meats,” Hodges said. “We’re going to be experimenting with things.”
Hodges has also applied with the city to allow the sale of beer and wine.
“It will be nice to get back to work,” Hodges said.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4236.