NAPLES — The building is in shambles, but the owners of Mangrove Cafe said Tuesday they are optimistic they’ll serve customers again this season.
Doug Amaral, owner of Mangrove Cafe, said he hopes to have the restaurant, 878 Fifth Avenue S., open by the middle of February. The building was badly damaged in a propane explosion behind the restaurant Monday morning.
Fire officials believe the fire, and subsequent explosion, started when a propane leak erupted next to a running car. A large fireball spread through the restaurant, blowing out windows, knocking down walls and detaching the roof.
An initial assessment by fire officials Monday determined the entire building needed to be demolished, but Amaral said structural engineers told him Tuesday that rather than demolishing the building, they would be able to restore the current one.
“They’re going to knock down the (west) wall and build a new wall,” Amaral said. “They were thinking maybe like five, six weeks, which is pretty aggressive, but we love hearing it.”
Paul Bollenback, Naples building inspector, said the building’s owners — listed on the Collier County’s property appraiser website as Grace’s Places of Naples LLC — could chose to rebuild but there could be some hurdles in doing so.
Bollenback said the restaurant is located in a flood zone and if the work to repair the building exceeds half of its value, the owner would have to update the building to withstand current flood standards.
The building’s assessed value is $66,986, according to the property appraiser’s website.
Opening in the middle of February comes as good news to Amaral, especially since restaurateurs said the accident could mean missing out on a busy season.
“They were gearing up for a good season,” said Lou Vlasho, who operates Vergina Restaurant, 700 Fifth Ave. S.
The winter months are generally the busiest in downtown Naples, with seasonal residents and visitors hoping to escape the cold frequenting restaurants on Fifth Avenue South and other popular dining districts. It’s during this time of year, when restaurateurs make the bulk of the money to get through the rest of the year, said Sukie Honeycutt, co-owner of Ridgway Bar & Grill, 1300 3rd St. S..
“These four months are crucial for any business,” Honeycutt said. “They make or break what your summer is.”
Vlasho said Mangrove Cafe has been on the street “since the street has been rejuvenated,” and was confident the owners would be able to bounce back if they want to.
“It will be just another thing in the history of Fifth. If Doug and Diane (Amaral, Doug Amaral’s wife) want the business to come back, it can come back,” Vlasho said.
Doug Amaral started working at Mangrove Cafe in 1990, and he bought the restaurant about a year later. Doug Amaral said the restaurant is one of the oldest ones on the street.
“Twenty years under our belt. We’re going for 21,” he said. “That’s our goal.”
A 2003 Daily News report states that the current restaurant’s neighbors — such as Pazzo! Italian Cafe, Chops City Grill and Yabbas Island Grill — had yet to move in when the couple opened the restaurant.
The restaurant has undergone several renovations since the Amarals took over the business. According to a 2005 Daily News report, the pair removed three different walls over the span of three years in order to grow the restaurant from 50 seats to 150 seats.
“The owners are very skilled at what they do,” said Phil McCabe, owner of the Inn on Fifth, 699 Fifth Ave. S.
“I think they own the branding, it’s a name that has value. Where ever you put it has value, as long as it is in the hands of these owners.”
Amaral said he is planning to work on the building “24/7,” to ensure the work is completed and he can open his doors this season.