It is fairly common for George Gates to receive a middle-of-the-night phone call from a worker alerting him that there’s a small fire smoldering in the pit of one of several Gates Bar-B-Q locations sprinkled throughout the Kansas City area.
“They always tell me, ‘I have it under control,’” said Gates, the son of owner Ollie Gates. “So for me there was no need to worry.”
But the call Gates received early Tuesday was different and unsettling.
An early morning blaze ravaged the iconic restaurant with its signature red roof in western Independence.
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The quick-moving fire started about 1 a.m. in exhaust system duct work above a grill and quickly spread to the attic and roof of the building at 10440 E. U.S. 40. A worker inside called 911.
Gates received a call about the blaze about 1:15 a.m. and headed to the scene, where smoke billowed into the frigid night air as two aerial trucks poured water on the structure.
“This time, I hit Blue Ridge Boulevard, came across the hill and saw the flames,” he said. He knew this fire wasn’t under control.
Nearby fire hydrants did not have enough water pressure to support the aerial trucks, so crews connected hoses to hydrants in a nearby residential neighborhood in addition to using one hydrant in front of the restaurant.
“It’s an older part of town there and the water lines are just a certain-size diameter,” said Independence Fire Battalion Chief Brad Waterworth. “We were using copious amounts of water and we needed more water than we were able to get from that one hydrant, so they moved to another hydrant a block away just to supplement it.”
The building smoldered as the sun came up hours later, with Ollie Gates watching from the warmth of his automobile as fire crews continued to work. Daylight revealed that the well-known red roof seen on all Gates restaurants was completely gone. Remnants of the brick walls remained.
It was unclear Tuesday morning whether any of those walls could be salvaged for possible rebuilding at the site, George Gates said. Built in 1979, the restaurant was the fifth location opened by the Gates family in the Kansas City area.
Gates said he and his father were determined to rebuild at that location.
“We are going to do something new, better, more innovative, more efficient, something different that will make the people of Kansas City and Independence proud,” Gates said.
More important, Gates noted: “The barbecue pit is still there. So if we want to use it, all we would need to do is put bricks around it.”
Ollie Gates said this the first time fire had destroyed one of his restaurants. The location has been popular in part because of its proximity to the Truman Sports Complex. Gates said he wants to make sure the residents of Independence have a restaurant because of their years of support.
The celebrities and athletes who have eaten at the site are too numerous to list but include Royals owner David Glass and members of the Hunt family, George Gates said.
“They came here because of the atmosphere, they came because of the food, they came because of the service,” he said. “They came because of the tradition that we try to have for our family in Kansas City.”
Throughout Tuesday, customers stopped along the parking lot to take cellphone pictures. It almost felt like a funeral visitation, with people coming to pay their respects, Gates said.
“It’s pretty sad, very sad,” Debbie McCubbin of Independence said as she sat in her vehicle taking photos of the firefighters and the building, which had been a common destination for family dinners and entertaining guests.
One man said he was going to send a photo to his daughter in Denver.
“She is going to be heartbroken when she sees this,” he said before driving away.
Insurance company and construction representatives were assessing the damage.
Waterworth said department investigators are looking into the fire’s cause. They called the restaurant a “total loss” but didn’t have a dollar estimate.
One of the best-known barbecue chains in a metropolis known for barbecue, Gates arrived in Kansas City as a family-run business in the 1940s.
Customers at the six Gates locations are greeted almost as soon as they walk through the doors with “Hi! May I help you?” from order takers who then yell the order to cooks in the kitchen behind them.
The Star’s Robert A. Cronkleton and Brian Burnes contributed to this report.