By MATT KOESTERS
NEW ALBANY —
Monday evening was much like hundreds of other evenings for Steve LaDuke, a night spent enjoying dinner with his 12-year-old son at Sam’s Food & Spirits along Charlestown Road.
“We walked out the door just like we have a million other times leaving Sam’s, thinking we’ll be back tomorrow, or in two or three days,” LaDuke, a New Albany resident, recalls. “I wake up the next morning for work; I turn on the news, I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Look what happened. It opens your eyes to just how quick things can change.”
For the iconic New Albany restaurant, Monday night was a night unlike any other in its 29-year history. After the business had closed for the evening and the employees had left, a fire broke out in the restaurant’s kitchen that New Albany firefighters couldn’t prevent from completely destroying the building, leaving more than 70 restaurant employees wondering what the future holds.
Owner Sam Anderson met with his staff Thursday to discuss what the fire meant for them and for the future of the restaurant. Anderson says that with the investigation of the fire still pending and insurance issues unresolved, rebuilding the restaurant is still up in the air. Anderson is working to ensure that his employees’ futures are secure.
“We’ve done our best to make them whole through Christmas,” Anderson said. “So after that, the first of the year, some we’re absorbing at our store in Floyds Knobs, and some we’re using to cater with because we’re catering out of a facility that we have in Clarksville, the Montrose.”
But Anderson isn’t the only one fighting for the future of his employees. Anderson’s staff has already been approached with offers of work from several area restaurants and catering facilities, ranging from establishments like Fireside in Sellersburg and Kingfish in Jeffersonville, to Horseshoe Casino in Elizabeth.
“The list just goes on and on,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s also not the only one working to make sure his employees have a happy holiday season. Kiwanis of Historic New Albany has established a fund to allow for the public to donate directly to Sam’s employees.
“We’re a small community, and Sam’s fire touches everyone,” said Colleen Endres, treasurer of Kiwanis of Historic New Albany.
Donations to the fund can be dropped off at any River Valley Bank branch and are tax-deductible. Checks should be made out to Kiwanis of Historic New Albany with “Sam’s Christmas Fund” in the memo line.
Endres, who also considers herself a Sam’s regular, said she hopes for the organization to be able to get the money to Sam’s employees the weekend before Christmas, ideally. She said she’d like to see the group hold another fundraiser in the early part of 2014.
“I don’t think these folks are going to be using this money for Christmas, necessarily,” Endres said. “Maybe a little. But they’ll be using it to pay the rent, to pay utilities. It concerns me a little bit; once we give them some money, their problems are not going to be over.”
Louisville restaurateur Larry Rice agrees. The owner of El Camino and Silver Dollar, Rice was once a service worker before he moved into management and ownership.
“If I was in that spot, or if my family was in that spot, I know how hard it would be,” Rice said. “I know a lot of people, especially industry people, need to get an [influx] of business this time of year, and you’re expecting that to buy business for your family, buy business for your kids or even just pay the light bill.”
That’s why Rice decided to host fundraisers at each of his restaurants to help Sam’s employees. El Camino hosted a silent auction Thursday, and all proceeds earned from the $7 Four Roses cocktails sold at the event were earmarked for donation. Another fundraiser will be held at Silver Dollar, 1761 Frankfort Ave., on Monday.
Joshua Koerber of Koerber’s Fine Jewelry in New Albany and Pandora Jewelry of Louisville, immediately decided to help the cause when he saw Rice was holding the fundraisers. Koerber washed dishes at Sam’s when he was 14 years old.
“It just makes sense this time of year to do whatever we can to help out those around us,” Koerber said. “Sam’s is just a few hundred yards away from our jewelry store and always has been. Sam’s always been a great friend and customer of ours, so we felt it was our duty to do whatever we can to help out whatever way that we can.”
Though Anderson is busy trying to figure out what the fire and its repercussions mean for his employees and his business — including transferring Sam’s catering business to Plantation Montrose in Clarksville, which he also owns — he couldn’t help but stop to appreciate just how much the community and the industry have reached out to help his people.
“It’s humbling. You’re blessed to live in a society that reaches out to people that have had a loss. It shows that America, especially in this area, is a very giving country, even with all of our challenges,” Anderson said. “I’m glad to be a citizen of this area.”