Elkhorn Fire Department investigating cause of fire at Abell's Restaurant and Lounge

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Andrea Anderson and Shelly Birkelo
September 5, 2014

ELKHORN—State and federal authorities are helping investigate a Friday morning fire that gutted Abell's Restaurant and Lounge.

The fire at N6427 Highway 12 began at about 4:50 a.m. in the restaurant's kitchen, Elkhorn Fire Department Chief Rod Smith said.

Seventy firefighters from 20 departments in Rock, Walworth and Jefferson counties helped fight the blaze, Smith said.

Flames were through the roof when Smith arrived at about 5 a.m. The fire was out by about 7:30 a.m., Smith said.

The fire started in the kitchen and probably was fed by grease built up through the years in the ceiling and ventilation spaces, Smith said.  

Smith said he didn't know the cause because the investigation was not complete.

The state Division of Criminal Investigation was called to assist in the investigation because it is a commercial business, Smith said.

An official wearing a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shirt and helmet was at the scene later Friday.

Cindy McKenna, former owner of the restaurant, said two families live in apartments attached to the restaurant.

McKenna and Del Ahearn bought the restaurant in 1978 from the Abell family, which had passed it down through three generations, Ahearn said. Ryan Ahearn and Mike Kapitan now own the business.

McKenna was called about the fire at 5:10 a.m.

“There were all kinds of people who stopped through here,” Ahearn said. “It's definitely a popular place to stop.”

Linda Rossetti arrived for work at 5 a.m. at the BP gas station across the street when she saw flames “peaking out” of the back of the restaurant where the kitchen was located.

She saw firefighters setting up cones to block traffic and saw the two families--one a husband and wife with two children and another an elderly couple with pets--get out safely, she said.

The business was a local gathering place.

“You can go sit down, have a beer and not know anyone, and people will start talking to you,” Rossetti said. “This is that type of community, its that type of place."

Several people stopped their cars outside the cordoned off area and snapped photos of the charred building.

Rossetti's brother and owner of the gas station Dennis Lockhart went to Abell's everyday and grew up going there. He said he was said to see the place go.

“It's where everybody goes to have coffee,” he said looking across the street. “It's the local place to go.”

Outside in the BP gas station, regular customers of the burned business reminisced.

“I came here everyday for coffee. Now it's over,” one man told McKenna.

She nodded and looked back toward the Abell's sign with scorched cursive red letters.

“We have to digest this before deciding what to do,” McKenna said. “It's kind of a devastating day.”

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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