BROOKSVILLE - The blaze that ripped through Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant early Friday morning did more than destroy a building and a business.
Hours after flames were extinguished at the landmark restaurant on Spring Lake Highway, about six miles east of downtown Brooksville, store employees gathered near the property to be together. Well-wishers, including Hernando County officials, stopped by to talk and lend support, and firefighters removed tanks and equipment from the building's charred shell.
The fire started in or near the kitchen and spread quickly, said Assistant Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Kevin Carroll. When firefighters arrived at about 3:15 a.m., flames were shooting through the roof.
No one was inside the building at the time of the fire, and none of the approximately 25 responding firefighters was injured, Carroll said.
The restaurant was opened in 1981 by Italian immigrant Joe Giarratana and his wife, Donna, who have served traditional fare, hosted events and done charity work there for more than 32 years. They also host a weekly cooking show on local cable television called "Loving Food."
"Joe and Donna are two of the best people I've ever met in my life," said Don Penn, a cook who showed up at the destroyed restaurant Friday morning after he heard about the fire.
Penn said the Giarratanas gave him a chance and accepted him into their family when they hired him about seven months ago. The cook said he had served time in prison, and although he had solid skills, he had applied at about 100 other places before the Giarratanas hired him.
"They have very loyal employees and customers," Penn said.
By Friday afternoon, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce sent out an email expressing its "deepest condolence" to the Giarratanas and their staff.
Papa Joe's, a chamber member since 1982, has hosted many chamber functions, the email stated. "Not only did the fire destroy the restaurant and the restaurant equipment, the fire also destroyed jobs," it read.
The chamber is asking area businesses to contact email@example.com with any job leads for the restaurant's staff. A Facebook page called Papa Joe's Employee Relief was launched to help servers and other staffers find employment while the restaurant is rebuilt, said Shane Barker.
Barker, who has sold groceries to the Giarratanas for eight years, said he set up the page for employees and to help alleviate the burden he knows the restaurant's owners must be feeling.
"He's a great person and great for the community," Barker said of Joe Giarratana. "I know he's had a tremendous amount of employees who have been with them for decades."
The Facebook page had received nearly 600 "likes" by Friday afternoon, and more than 2,000 by mid-morning Saturday, with different employers posting local job leads.
"I'm just trying to take one thing off his plate," Barker said.
Barker said Papa Joe's has an "incredible local following" and is a destination for out-of-town visitors.
"It's a tradition for a lot of people," Barker said.
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Tammy Heon, Tourism Development Coordinator for Hernando County, said Friday that Papa Joe's draws diners from within the county and beyond.
"I remember when I was gettting ready for my first interview in Hernando County," Heon said. "I was at my hairdresser and told her I was applying for the job and would be driving around the county prior to my interivew. She said 'oh, check out Papa Joe's, it's the best Italian restaurant around, people come from all over to enjoy Papa Joe's food.'"
Heon called Giarratana a "pillar of the community" and "one of the nicest people" she's ever worked with. "I'm not surprised about the outpouring of love and support from the rest of the community," she added.
Heon said she was glad to hear a Facebook page had been set up for employees and said she'd post any job leads she hears about and encourage other businesses to do so as well.