Fire destroys Pegah’s Family Restaurant in Shawnee

A blackened air conditioning unit had fallen, along with the rest of the roof, into where the dining area used to be.

In the parking lot just north of the Pegah’s Family Restaurant in Shawnee, a line of five people — employees, former employees, friends — watched in silence as an orange crane lifted the unit from the fire-gutted restaurant, suspended it in the air, and then set it on the ground.

Then they turned to each other, and the talk began again: Let’s put up signs telling people to go to the other Pegah’s, on Johnson Drive, until this place is rebuilt.

It was 11 a.m. Though the building still wasn’t safe enough for investigators come inside and figure out the cause of the blaze that destroyed Pegah’s early Wednesday, it wasn’t too early to think about the future.

The owner, Fred Soleimani, tromped around the property at 75th Street and Nieman Road with Shawnee firefighters and insurance agents, still wearing the black T-shirt and jeans he said he’d thrown on when the Shawnee Fire Department called him at 3:30 a.m. to tell him about the fire.

The blaze had been reported at 1:46 a.m., drawing three fire engines and three ladders. Once the flames were defeated, about three and a half hours later, the restaurant, which Soleimani named after his daughter, would be a total loss.

The emotions were so overwhelming, Soleimani said, he couldn’t remember the first couple hours watching the firefighters battle back the flames. But he knows what the future will be like.

“I’m not going to leave Shawnee,” Soleimani said in a phone interview later. “We’re going to build this back up, and we’re going to be stronger than before.”

His former wife, Sara Bahmani, who runs the Pegah’s at 11005 Johnson Drive in Shawnee, said she had come to the scene to support Soleimani. It was hard, she said, to see the fire consume a place full of more than a decade’s worth of memories — of staff wearing goofy costumes on Halloween, of belly dancers on Christmas.

“It’s bad to stay and watch, because you’re watching your life burn in front of you,” she said. She hoped to bring some of the employees over to her restaurant until they could get their old jobs back.

Linda Fitzgerald, who also came to see the ruins, worked at Pegah’s between 1999 and 2007.

“Everything was homemade,” she said. “People would come by several times a day, especially the elderly who didn’t want to cook for themselves.”

Fitzgerald’s daughter had broken the news to her after driving by the wreckage. Several customers stopped by to share their condolences, just as she had come to share her own.

“It’s gonna be a place that’s well-missed,” she said.

As of 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, firefighters had picked through about half the rubble before calling it a day to get out of the heat. Fire marshal John Mattox said the department would restart its investigation at 7 a.m. today.