Mel’s revival on its way

The morning of April 22, 2010 is one that Jerry Smith would like to forget.

Around 5:30 a.m. on the fateful morning, a fire broke out in University Avenue’s Campus Court Plaza, destroying at least five of the mall’s businesses; one of which was Smith’s restaurant, an area favourite, Mel’s Diner. In total, the fire caused nearly $4.5 million in damages, but for Smith, the pain of that day went beyond dollar figures.

“The easiest way to describe it is watching your own house burn down. That’s exactly what it felt like,” said Smith, who arrived at the scene of the fire before it had reached Mel’s Diner, however was forced to watch it slowly be engulfed.

“Everything I’ve ever had, collected, did, everyday, day in day out, was all in that ‘house.’ Almost 16 years of my life was in there and that’s why it needs to go back up.”

Smith founded Mel’s Diner along with his brother in 1995 and with its nostalgic, 1950’s diner-style and being open 24 hours a day, it became a staple amongst students and locals alike. After the fire, both Smith and the restaurant’s regulars were left in the dark on the future of the establishment.

“It has been completely uncertain,” said Smith of the roughly year and two months since the fire. “I just never knew one day to the next, who would own the property, what they wanted to do with it, when we’d be back in business, if we’d be back in business… I had to kind of get my feet on the ground and get going.”

And now, that time for Smith to ‘get going’ has come.

In the next two weeks, Smith will open Frat Burger, located on University Ave. West at King St. North, across the street from Wilfrid Laurier University. As he describes it, this burger pub will be a combination of two of Waterloo’s most legendary eateries, Mel’s Diner and Ethel’s Lounge.

“Glen Smith who owns Ethel’s Lounge came and found me and we worked out some details and this is his brain child really,” said Smith. “It’s a great location, a great concept and we’re just really excited to get going.”

In addition, Jerry Smith will resume his role operating the beloved Mel’s Diner in the not too distant future.

“You won’t even know there was a fire,” said Smith of the re-opening of Mel’s. “It’ll be exactly what was there before. Except, with a three-year demolition plan.”

“So the plan is to run for three years, take it down and then rebuild with the high rises on top,” he explained.

While there is no set timetable for the rebuilding of Mel’s, Smith said the property owners are confident that they will be ready to go by September, though that may mean only having a building in place and not being able to open.

Smith has spent the year since the fire with a multitude of questions and since the new year, Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) and the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office have begun producing some answers.

In early January, the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office had confirmed the cause of the fire to be arson and in the following months, a total of four arrests were made in connection with the case. In April, Daniel Campbell and William Schneider of Kitchener and Lyntje Zingerof Hawkesville were arrested, while on June 22, Brent Campbell, who owns Titanium nightclub in Uptown Waterloo became the fourth suspect charged.

WRPS is unable to release any details of the cases.

“I think it was pretty obvious right off the bat that it was arson. The fire marshals said ‘we know what happened here, we just have to prove it,’ and that was within a week of the fire,” said Smith. “I’m actually surprised they came up with it, to prove arson, you almost have to see the guy light the match.”

According to Smith, these arrests and confirmations do provide closure, however they don’t make what happened last April any easier.

“It would be like a family losing a child and never finding them,” he said. “We found some people who were responsible for it but it doesn’t make it any better. It doesn’t make it any easier, it doesn’t fix anything it, it just puts closure to it, I guess.”

Regardless of who or what was to blame for the fire, Smith’s eyes are now only looking forward, both to the opening of Frat Burger and the return of Mel’s.

“I’m anxious to get back to work, to open the doors, take the paper off the windows and say ‘here we are’ and see how the response is,” he said. “Just start building that vibe again with the locals, I’m really excited to get back to that.”