GRANGER -

A cardboard box, a deep fryer and wind. A Granger restaurant owner says those three things started a fire that caused lots of damage to his business and two others in a strip mall.

The damage is so bad that those three business owners aren’t sure when they will re-open.

The strip mall is on State Road 23, near Bittersweet Road. Investigators say the fire started outside, behind the Copper Creek Café.

Restaurant owner George Tselios told WSBT his employees were trying to fill the deep fryer with oil Thursday morning. That oil is in a plastic liner that sits inside a cardboard box, and someone set the box on top of a hot griddle, he said. 

Heat from the griddle caused the box to smolder, so workers doused it with water in the sink before throwing the box away from the building, behind the restaurant. 

Firefighters say a gust of wind sent it back toward the building and fire quickly spread up the side of the building to the roof.

“I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place trying to get it together,” said Tselios, fighting back tears. “To see something like this happen is hard.”

It was a heartbreaking scene for Tselios and his employees. He opened Copper Creek Café in September 2012 because he liked the location and traffic.

“We have been very successful and we appreciate our business, we love the people out here,” said Dorothy Bouck, a manager and server at the restaurant.

Bouch says she evacuated about a dozen tables of customers as soon as she realized the restaurant was on fire.

“We’ll have to see what we have to do to keep going,” said Doug Fine, who owns the 2nd Time Around consignment shop with his wife Cristal. It sits next door to the restaurant.

An employee working there got out OK, Fine said. 

“We need to call the insurance company, see what they can do to help us out. Get the smell out of the clothes,” he added.

The smoke and water damage is only part of it. Firefighters pulled down the ceiling throughout the entire building to make sure the attic wasn’t burning. Even though that may have spared the building from more fire damage, it caused a lot of debris from one end of the restaurant to another.  

While he tries to deal with the emotions of what happened, Tselios said he feels sorriest for his employees – his second family.

“She’s my best friend,” he said tearfully, referring to Bouch. “She came from my other restaurant. My kitchen manager, again one of my best friends, came from my other restaurant, so it’s tough.”

“Not quite sure what we’re going to do from here, but George is a good guy,” said Bouch. “He’ll take care of it.”

Tselios’ other restaurant is in White Pigeon.

He, the consignment store owners and Tapped Out, a bar in the strip, all have the same plan – get cleaned up and re-open as soon as possible.

Investigators confirmed late Thursday afternoon the cause of the fire was from a smoldering cardboard box that an employee put on a griddle then threw outside. There were no reported injuries in the fire. 

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Full release from Clay Fire Department:

Granger, IN – The Clay Fire Territory was dispatched to a reported commercial fire located at 12634 State Road 23 in Granger shortly after 10:00 AM today. Fire crews arrived on-scene within minutes and quickly located a significant working fire in the rear of the building occupied by the Copper Creek Café. Although the fire had extended into a commonly shared attic space, emergency crews were able to quickly bring the fire under control and prevent significant fire damage from breaching into the adjoining businesses. The fire was confined to the Copper Creek Café. The occupants and patrons of all three businesses affected by today’s fire were able to safely exit the building. There were no reported injuries. 

It is suspected that the fire started when a cardboard box containing cooking oil was set atop a lit cooking griddle. An employee attempted to extinguish the smoldering cardboard box with water from the kitchen sink. The box was then placed outside of the building on the ground where it is suspected to have reignited and blown toward the building by the strong southeasterly winds.

The Clay Fire Territory recommends to always store flammable objects well away from all potential sources of ignition.

As part of a typical commercial fire response, fire crews from more than ten different area fire departments including Mishawaka, Notre Dame, Penn Township, Warren Township, Cleveland Township, Niles Township (MI), Niles City (MI), Edwardsburg (MI), and Howard Township (MI) were called to assist with the blaze. Firefighters remained on the scene for several hours to ensure spot fires in the attic space were controlled.

It is not known when the three businesses affected by today’s fire will be ready to re-open for normal operations. Cleanup crews have already begun work to repair the building.