Firefighters were still blocks away from the burning East Main Street business complex on the early afternoon of Dec. 9, 2020, when they saw the plume.
With a plume like that, their trained eyes told them, the building was bound to be a total loss, and it would take Salon Focus, Cascade Chiropractic, Nail Master Too and Athens Pizza and Pasta with it.
But that didn’t happen.
“They laddered up this side of the building, got up, determined that the fire jad started in an awning over Salon Focus and made an incredible stop,” recalled Dean McAuley, a VRFA deputy fire marshal and a fire investigator on the incident.
Salon Focus, Cascade Chiropractic, Nail Master Too have since set up shop at different locales. But Athens Pizza could not move. It suffered significant smoke damage and is still months away from reopening.
Before that happens, the Contoravdis family, which owns Athens, has to replace the roof all the way down to the ceiling tiles and repair everything inside the restaurant, from booths to carpet, and repaint. The family has a company cleaning its kitchen, taking out the equipment and sterilizing it.
“Thanks goodness we do have insurance, which will take care of the cosmetics inside,” said Nina Contoravdis, wife of co-owner Bill Contoravdis. “We don’t really have an idea of the cost yet because we are just having people coming out now to give us bids.”
But there’s something insurance won’t cover, said Contoravdis, and it is at the family’s heart.
It’s why on Jan. 19, McAuley and other members of Valley Professional Firefighters Local 1352 were out in front of the shuttered restaurant to present the Contoravdis family with a $1,000 check for Athens employees.
“What the fire department is doing here today is raising money to help us pay our employees. so every week they will keep on getting paid, hopefully, until we reopen,” said a grateful Nina Contoravdis.
The Contoravdis family will take that money and buy gift cards in increments of $50. The firefighters union will then raffle the gift cards on its social media site, then donate the money the raffle has raised back to Athens on top of the thousand it presented Tuesday.
“We are doing everything we can to keep their employees paid while they work on this,” said McAuley.
That, on top of the community support, which included a December fundraiser that Contoravdis called “absolutely incredible.”
Turns out, the fire was personal to local firefighters, for whom Athens has been a favorite stop ever since the restaurant opened its doors 41 years ago at 953 E. Main St. Indeed, for the VRFA’s north and south stations 31 and 32, Athens is critical.
“Any time we have a really busy shift and can’t get to a store to get food, Athens is always our go-to place,” McAuley said.
It’s not unsual for fire personnel to stop on Main Street in bunker gear and bunker pants and rush out, run inside the restaurant and grab the grinders that have already been laid out for them. Or for firefighters to eat their sandwiches inside a fire truck on their way to a call, McAuley said.
“It’s a family-owned place in Auburn that supports what firefighters do,” McAuley said.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus explained why the restaurant and the Contoravdis family means so much to Auburn.
“They provide toys and donations for the firefighters’ efforts, for the toy drive at Christmas time, they provide funding for the Auburn Food Bank. They are just very generous in their community. They have a good, strong family and they believe in this city as being family, too,” Backus said.
“Athens has been a part of our community for more than 40 years, and the good work they do in and for the community just causes people to really want to rally around them and give back some of the support they’ve given to the community,” Backus added.
Want to help Athens?
Go to charity.gofundme.com/iafflocal1352benevolentfund and click on the green donation button. Each donation enters the participant into a drawing for one of the $50 gift cards, regardless of donation size. The drawing is at 5 p.m. Jan. 31, and results will be posted on IAFFLocal 1352’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites. Fifty percent of the proceeds will go directly back to Athens, and the other 50 percent will go to organizations in the community that Athens regularly supports, such as the Auburn Food Bank.