SAN JOSE -- With a wall shaking and a kitchen fire threatening a Flames coffee shop as it was about to open Saturday morning, chef Mark Paquin rushed across the street to a nearby fire station, hoping firefighters could quickly put out the blaze.
But it was moving too fast for firefighters to salvage the restaurant, just a block away. The Hillsdale Avenue Flames, part of a popular chain of San Jose eateries, burst into flames, causing at least $1 million in damage, according to fire officials and employees.
"Within three, four minutes it was gone," said Paquin, standing outside as firefighters doused the smoldering roof of his workplace for the past 17 years. "This thing went fast."
Fire crews responded to the restaurant about 6:20 a.m., and the fire eventually escalated to a four-alarm response. Fire officials said the blaze was brought under control about 8:10 a.m.
No injuries were reported, and fire officials were still investigating the cause. But Capt. Barry Ehlers said the blaze appeared to have broken out in the kitchen, fueled in part by grease, and wound up gutting the eatery, which has been operating at that location for about two decades.
Flames has several coffee shops in San Jose, including one downtown and one near Santana Row.
Paquin said the cause of the fire was a mystery, recounting how it started shortly after he and two fellow workers were readying the kitchen for another day of serving breakfast. When he noticed that fire seemed to be breaking out in at least two spots, he rushed to the fire station -- and fire officials moved quickly to contain the fire, worrisome with a gas station adjacent to the restaurant.
"We're lucky nothing blew up," Paquin said.
As Paquin and co-workers watched the fire crews through the morning, they were hopeful the restaurant, now under new ownership, would rebuild and reopen.
Still in his white chef's clothes, Paquin described Flames employees as a close-knit group. Many have worked there for years, he said.
"It's kind of sad," he said. "It's our life."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz