CLARKESVILLE — Local residents were heartbroken Thursday after a large fire did heavy damage to historic buildings in the downtown area of this Habersham County town.
“The whole town is distraught. The whole county is distraught,” said Judy Taylor, president of the Habersham County Chamber of Commerce. “(Sweet Breads Cafe) was a restaurant that people loved to come to, and it had beautiful, beautiful art work that can never be replaced.”
Firefighters responded to the initial blaze around 11 p.m. Wednesday at the East Water Street restaurant, housed in a warehouse that dates to the 1930s.
Lee Hull, co-owner of Sweet Breads, stood outside the devastation Thursday afternoon.
“It started about 11ish last night. We don’t know how yet,” he said.
Hull said he was grateful to all the fire crews that responded, noting they had been there through the night and were still there Thursday morning. He said business owners still waiting to talk to the investigator, but said he already knows he wants to rebuild.
“It was (an 80)-year-old building, though,” Hull said, acknowledging it will be hard to replace that kind of character.
There were no reports of any injuries.
A note on the Sweet Breads Facebook page read, “We are heartbroken at the devastation tonight in Clarkesville and the loss our community has experienced tonight. Our prayers go out to everyone, especially those who have directly been touched by this tragedy.”
John Luhn, a close friend of the owner, stayed at the site through the afternoon with Hull and Sweat Breads co-owner C.B. Henson.
“We don’t know that the (investigators) have any definite sense of the cause at this juncture,” he said.
What Luhn did know was that the community support had been overwhelming.
“The Chamber of Commerce has offered to provide whatever personal assistance they can to employees of the restaurant. The state Department of Community Affairs came to visit and offered the same kind of assistance,” he said.
The building’s designation as a historic site has apparently qualified it for additional resources, Luhn said.
“There are resources available through state agencies that have grant possibilities available to folks like them, and for displaced employees, as well as for redesigning and rebuilding the restaurant,” he said.
Taylor said the chamber will stay tuned for opportunities to help.
“The main thing right now is we let them know we care and that it’s devastating to all of us, not just them,” she said of Sweet Breads. “The whole town gets involved. They’re calling it ‘our place.’ They feel it.”
Taylor recalled a 2010 restaurant that burned down, and came back better than ever.
“I told the owner that,” she said. “In November 2010, Hawgwild BBQ burned down. And I think it was in August 2011 they reopened with a beautiful building, and business has been great ever since — in fact, better, I think.”
Luhn said the pain is still fresh for the owners, but community outreach and tenacity only makes a rebuilt Sweet Breads more likely.
“Right now, with the encouragement of friends and other people in the community, there’s a strong desire that they start again, and they’re beginning to talk in terms of doing that,” he said.
Michelle Boaen Jameson contributed to this story.