Loveland Rises from the Ashes

A devastating 2017 fire could have crushed Loveland. It brought the sprawling community together instead.

It was possibly smoldering for hours, high in the rafters or inside a top floor wall, hidden from the busy world below.

A tiny spark with just enough oxygen to combust its surroundings worked upward, finally breaking through the roof, gulping in the night air, and exploding into an inferno.

The Loveland fire on May 28, 2017

Photograph courtesy Otto Huber

So began the Great Loveland Fire of 2017 and a Memorial Day weekend no one in this quaint city of 14,000 will ever forget. As dawn broke on Sunday morning and word spread, dozens of residents poured into the 160-year-old historic district, gaping at the smoking ruins of an entire block of brick buildings. Fire hoses snaked across the damp street, which began to glisten as the sun rose.

Gaetano Williams stood transfixed in front of the ruins of his restaurant, feeling numb. He had been busy just hours before in the kitchen of Tano Bistro, managing the Saturday night whirlwind. Fire Chief Otto Huber, who had rushed home from a vacation at his lake house, poked and prodded around the still-smoking block of singed bricks and mortar, wondering if they’d hold or collapse into the street.

Someone handed a water bottle to a tired firefighter. Another sheepishly asked if there was anything she could do to help. Except for the muffled voices of firefighters working in the alley behind the storefronts, it was eerily quiet until, suddenly, there was a crash as a chunk of wood or drywall fell three stories to the ground.

It was Loveland’s lowest point. It was also the beginning of its finest hour. From that first offer of bottled water to the Loveland Legacy Foundation, which is still supporting residents affected by the flames, this is the story of a resilient town that literally has risen from the ashes.

Gina and Gaetano Williams, photographed at the under-construction Tano Bistro in Loveland, September 19, 2018.

Photograph by Dustin Sparks

Would there even be a Loveland if not for the Little Miami Scenic Trail? The 75-mile-long paved trail passes right through the city’s historic district, alongside a large park, bars, restaurants, a bike shop, a canoe livery, and several specialty stores. Bikers, walkers, runners, skateboarders, and dogs are everywhere. On summer weekends, it can feel as busy as downtown Cincinnati.

Loveland was made for the outdoors. The day before the fire, the historic district on West Loveland Avenue was packed. It was the unofficial start of summer, 80 degrees and sunny, and cash registers were cha-ching-ing.

“It was a busy night,” recalls Williams, noting he was multitasking in his head, thinking about the next day’s brunch and a large catering order on Sunday night. Everything seemed normal. No strange noises, no flicker of the lights, no smell of gas, no hint of smoke. “I had to get up early the next day, so I went home and went to bed.”

Later that night, his wife and business partner Gina’s cell phone rang. A voice yelled in her ear. The man was breathless after running door-to-door at the apartments in the adjacent Bishop Building, screaming at residents to get out. “The building is on fire,” he shouted to Gina. “Call the fire department!”

“It was a surreal event,” mutters Gaetano, known by everyone as Tano, reliving the next few hours. “You feel like you’re in a movie. It’s dark, smoky, all the emergency lights are flashing. It looked like a movie set.” As flames shot more than 30 feet above the roofline, he watched as firefighters battled to keep the blaze from engulfing the block. They succeeded, but the restaurant was devastated. “Ten thousand gallons is a deluge that does a lot of damage,” Chief Huber notes.

When the hoses were finally turned off after five hours, Tano and Gina were amazed at the 10 feet of water that filled the restaurant’s basement. They’d fed happy customers in a newly-remodeled dining room just hours before, and now the only sound was that of water still pouring from above, splattering at their feet. Plaster, drywall, wood, ceiling tiles, flooring, light fixtures, and expensive appliances were destroyed. Dozens of bottles of wine and liquor, if not ruined, could no longer be sold.

The Williamses eventually opened one of those wine bottles—a $400 red—in a sort of “What the hell?” moment, trying to figure out what to do next. And how.

The restaurant business is risky and uncertain. Location, competition, low margins, grueling hours, and changing consumer tastes challenge the heartiest entrepreneurs. According to CNBC, almost 60 percent of new restaurants go out of business in the first year, and 80 percent within five years. “The insurance companies told us most restaurants don’t rebuild after something like this happens,” says Tano. “It was especially hard for us since we didn’t own the building. But we knew in our heart we wanted to rebuild.”

He had allies right away. As firefighters watered down hot spots on Sunday morning, a few regular customers came downtown to cheer him up and pledge their support. City officials were there, too, encouraging the first responders but also tending to the victims. He remembers Kathy Bailey, whom he didn’t know well at that point, coming up to him and saying, “Tano, anything you want, anything. Just tell us what you need.” Bailey, who was then on city council, is now Loveland’s mayor.

Gina wondered if their emotions were clouding their judgment. “Well, the math didn’t work,” she recalls thinking. “Were we just using our hearts and not our heads?”

Loveland is an interesting place. Its downtown is in Clermont County, but its strip mall corridor off I-275 is in Hamilton County. The historic district hugs a railroad track, and north of that track lie a few neighborhoods in Warren County.

Over the last 25 years, a number of farms in Miami Township in Clermont County and Hamilton County’s Symmes Township have yielded to subdivisions and shopping centers, bringing people, traffic, and new money. It has, from time to time, stoked resentment from legacy residents who miss the old candy counter or the feed store. Similarly, it’s sometimes frustrated newcomers who love the charm but want the amenities of a prosperous suburban community.

Gaetano and Gina Williams bring Tano Bistro back to life after the devastating Loveland fire on May 28, 2017.

Photograph by Dustin Sparks

It was into this growing-pains environment that the Williamses decided, in 2009, to transform their catering business, which they ran out of their home, into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It was a logical progression. Tano had been in the restaurant business since age 15, working as a chef in several Florida restaurants, moving to Cincinnati in 1999 to open Rookwood’s Buca di Beppo, then becoming head chef at McCormick & Schmick’s downtown. He certainly looks the part. Maybe it’s his salt-and-pepper goatee. Or his starched white tunic. Or a mid-section that suggests he likes to eat. Or a name that sounds like it belongs in the kitchen.

Still, Gina admits she was skeptical about opening their own restaurant. “She gave me two weeks to find the money, thinking I’d never do it,” Tano says, laughing. When he did, she was all in. They found a space in the historic district next to a tea shop and went to work.

I recall to Tano my first visit to his restaurant, a few months after it opened. My wife had been there for lunch and was anxious for me to try it since I was one of those newcomers who always complained that I had to drive for miles to get something more than pizza or a burger.

White tablecloths in Loveland? A fully stocked bar with padded wooden chairs instead of plastic and aluminum stools? Actual art on the walls? A restaurant with a cool vibe? I tell Tano I had a pork chop at that first meal in early 2010. “Oh yes,” he responds without missing a beat, “with the apple horseradish sauce.”

There’s passion in his voice as he talks about food or, more specifically, what he calls “consciously-sourced food” that builds both a culinary and a personal relationship with his customers. “We want people leaving here saying that they trust what they just ate was not only good, but good for you,” he says, without making it sound like a mission statement. That means, for example, knowing the restaurant’s signature water buffalo burger came from a specific farm north of Dayton where the animals eat only grass and are humanely treated.

Business at Tano Bistro was slow at first. The recession was still raging, and Gina learned that busy suburbanites with jobs in the city and kids juggling school activities and homework don’t eat out much during the week. Tano continually tweaked the menu, looking for his niche. He emphasized soups and sauces made from scratch and scrupulously studied the Cincinnati palate. Filets are our favorite steaks and, landlocked as we are, we love our seafood. Tano staked out the Seafood Station parking lot on Loveland-Madeira Road to find out who delivered the freshest catches to our region. “Kind of creepy,” Gina cracks.

The economy improved, construction of a downtown apartment complex concluded in 2016, word of Tano’s culinary skills spread beyond Loveland, and business finally took off. “We’d hit our stride,” Gina recalls with a sigh. “There was energy downtown, we had figured out our menu, and we had a lot of loyal customers.” The last six months before the fire were their most profitable.

The acrid smell of charred and saturated wood hung in the air on that Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend in 2017, and downtown Loveland had become a macabre tourist attraction. The question on everyone’s mind was “What now?” Chief Huber wondered that himself. “We had fought a defensive fire all night and we just had the feeling the buildings could go down,” he remembers. It was probably the sturdy mid-1800s construction and the 2-by-10-foot floor trusses that held them up, he says.

Huber immediately ordered shoring materials and, after inspecting the interior of a clothing boutique in the adjacent Bishop Building, was convinced the block could be saved. He began to formulate in his head what would be needed to bring downtown Loveland back to life. Others were doing the same thing.

“We decided, and I mean all the owners decided, that we wanted to build something that would last and be better than what we had,” says Chief Huber.

“Oh, there was no shortage of ideas,” recalls Huber, laughing at the flood of suggestions—some innovative, some wacky—he heard. But what was most heartening was that the mood quickly turned from despair to determination to enthusiasm. “I knew we were going to come back,” he says.

And it happened quickly. While fire investigators and insurance companies did what they do, an architectural firm worked on initial designs. City officials helped relocate a couple of the burned-out businesses, and the Williamses hit the phones, calling area restaurants to find jobs for their employees. The community began raising funds, initially to help apartment residents who had lost everything. A “Loveland Strong” initiative revealed generosity that surpassed expectations and allowed the community to establish a permanent Loveland Legacy Foundation.

“What this community did to bring us back just amazed me,” says CeeCee Collins, president of the local chamber of commerce. “The fire would have broken the backs of a lot of communities, but it just made us stronger.”

The cause of the fire remains a mystery. Huber says investigators have video camera proof it started in the rear of Tano Bistro, high in the rafters. They know it wasn’t arson, but there’s no evidence to pinpoint why it started or even when. They only know it broke through the roof a little after 1 a.m. and spread rapidly, likely fueled by a rubber coating on the roof. Official cause: unknown.

It’s a funny thing about disasters. Sometimes the destruction is so complete that you have no choice but to just walk away. Sometimes you’re in such a hurry to rebuild that you slap something together and hope it resembles what you had. “We decided, and I mean all the owners decided, that we wanted to build something that would last and be better than what we had,” says Huber.

He was positioned to help make that happen. Days after the fire was extinguished, City Manager Dave Kennedy asked Huber to lead the reconstruction effort. For the next 15 months, his job resembled as much a planning director, economic development director, zoning expert, and business liaison as fire chief. He’s been at it long enough that he has his own vision of what Loveland should be: boutiques, a bacon-and-eggs breakfast café, mom-and-pop retail, and no antique stores.

City government helped streamline the permitting process and worked with property owners on installation of a block-wide shared fire sprinkler system. The disaster sparked renewed interest in updating the city’s master plan, improving drainage on the bike trail, and addressing a persistent parking issue. City council, which for a couple of years was paralyzed by bitter infighting, is now working together in the wake of a decisive municipal election in 2017.

The Williamses plugged away throughout the rebuilding efforts, running their catering business, Take Home Tano, from a location a little over a mile away. “We were just hanging on,” Gina says, “but it helped that we always knew the community and our customers were behind us.” Tano kept cooking, planning, and designing. And he learned, quickly, the art of dealing with contractors. Lots of contractors—roofers, framers, electricians, plumbers, equipment suppliers, interior designers. Sometimes they showed up on time, and sometimes they didn’t.

“I can now say, without hesitation, that there’s nothing I don’t know about the restaurant business,” he says, laughing with a hint of cynicism.

It’s now mid-September, and Tano is standing on the front stoop of his restaurant space, white coat gleaming in the setting sun, a single strand of Mardi Gras beads around his neck. His eyes twinkle as passers-by attending the “Loveland Strong” weekend festival sample his cuisine, which he sets up on the sidewalk. Even though it will be another month before any of the businesses reopen on this block of downtown Loveland, he and his Cajun restaurant neighbor, Bishop’s Quarter, offer a tasty glimpse of the future. Ramsey’s, another new restaurant in the making, has no food but displays its menu and promotes a gift card raffle. All three spots will offer roof-top bars, prompting a few jokes about Loveland’s new “skyline.”

Tano’s jovial personality is in full bloom as he watches people taste one of his signature appetizers—a piece of candied home-cured bacon dipped in brown sugar and encrusted with pecans. Old customers stop by, as do former waiters and cooks. A man who says he’s never eaten at the bistro corrals Tano and wants to know when he can make a reservation. In the hubbub, Tano’s face takes on the countenance of a man who’s traveled down rough and uncertain roads to his life’s dream: a new business reborn in a community that not only wants him but has helped him get there.

A brass band parades around the crowded streets. The bike trail is packed with families. Narrow Path, the town’s craft brewery, serves thirsty customers. There are long waits at the town’s remaining legacy restaurants. As night falls, fireworks etch the sky.“The fire was one of those things that showed what this community is all about,” Gina reflects. “But, you know, that stuff fizzles in a lot of places. Not here. If the community hadn’t supported us all these months, we wouldn’t have made it.”

A few weeks after the celebration, Tano Bistro, Bishop’s Quarter, and Ramsey’s are open. With the slower winter season coming, each spot will have a few months to gear up and adjust before bikers, walkers, and joggers return to the Scenic Trail in earnest. When spring arrives, seats in those rooftop bars will be in demand. And we can all raise a glass to that.

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