Cause of JJ’s Fire Uncomfirmed

One of Door County‘s most popular restaurants remains closed after a fire charred the kitchen of JJ‘s La Puerta in Sister Bay Friday, Aug. 7.

James “JJ” Johnson takes a look in his charred kitchen.

Investigator Randall Tassoul said state fire marshalls from the Division of Criminal Investigations are still working to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. It could take up to a month to get a final answer, but the fire is believed to have started in the kitchen. Tassoul said there is no suspicion of foul play.

“The smoke alarm went off, and I woke up to black smoke coming up through the floor,” said John Young, a JJ’s employee who lives in an apartment above the restaurant. “It was thick, black smoke so bad I didn’t even have a chance to grab my cell phone.”

Young and four other employees who were also sleeping above the restaurant estimated that the fire started around 6:55 am. Firefighters from several Door County departments began arriving about 20 minutes later, Young said.

“We tried to find a hose and grab buckets of water from the bay but it was useless,” Young said.

James “JJ” Johnson, the restaurant’s owner and namesake, watched firefighters use chainsaws to cut into the restaurant he opened in 1978. He talked about moving on. Johnson opened a second location in Jacksonport this month, and even as firefighters hacked at the walls of his kitchen, his mind was on work.

“We’ll be cooking there tonight,” he said of the new location.

The fire was the latest in a long, tragic tradition of iconic Door County establishments hit by fire. The Peninsula Pub, Baileys Harbor Yacht Club, Founders Square, Stone’s Throw Winery, and Hotel du Nord all suffered devastating fires in the last 25 years, and just over a year ago The Cookery in Fish Creek burned. In 2006, the Pioneer Store and two buildings at the Cedar Grove Resort in Ellison Bay were destroyed by a propane explosion.

JJ’s La Puerta did not have an Ansul fire suppression system in the kitchen. Such systems are usually installed in a kitchen hood, and when triggered the system blankets the kitchen in a dry foam that can help contain fire.

According to Kris Johnson, JJ’s wife, they were alerted to the fire when their carpenter called them at about 7 am, asking “Do you guys know your restaurant is on fire?”

The kitchen suffered severe damage.

The restaurant is located in a century-old building on the north end of Sister Bay in the Town of Liberty Grove. At 8 am, a crowd of employees, passersby, and tourists staying on boats in the Yachtworks Marina were gathered on the shore behind the restaurant, watching firefighters chainsaw into one of their favorite watering holes. Though the building didn’t show excessive damage outside, a look in the rear window revealed a blackened kitchen.

Firefighters contained the blaze and neighboring establishments were not damaged, including Yachtworks to the north and The Waterfront restaurant, also owned by the Johnsons, to the south.

Kris Johnson said the timing of the fire couldn’t be worse in a tourist destination where peak season business is invaluable.

“I was just telling a customer yesterday that this is it,” she said. “If a business owner up here needs one week a year, this is the week.”

Two hours after the fire, Kris Johnson was relieved nobody was hurt, and kept her spirits up by making jokes, but she knew that wouldn’t last.

“I’m joking now, but I’ll cry when I get inside,” she said.

James Johnson was already figuring out how to re-open, and pointed to the roof, where one customer seemed unfazed by the damage.

“The seagulls still like it,” he said, and laughed.