‘Disbelief’ hits owners and workers as downtown Visalia seeks to rebuild

In the aftermath of a devastating fire that engulfs three businesses in downtown Visalia, owners and their employees scramble to pick up the pieces and figure out what’s next for the battered block.

On May 1, a fire spread from a dumpster behind Alejandra’s Mexican restaurant to the building before consuming businesses on the main street and damaging three others: Sage Salon Suites, the Visalia Fox Theater and Gorilla Quesadilla.

Dozens of employees from Alejandra’s, Jimmy John’s and Decor de Amore evacuated businesses and watched their livelihoods burn.

“We are still in shock,” Alejandra chief executive Saul Altamirano said this week. “It’s been 48 hours, and we’re still in disbelief.”

No one was hurt in the three-alarm blaze that shut down downtown for hours as Tulare County crews battled the flames, sending tens of thousands of gallons of water gushing from the gutters of the Main Street.

Alejandra’s longtime owner Roque Salinas has pledged to rebuild.

“We can’t let the community down,” he told Altamirano. “They have supported us for 28 years, and we will continue to support them – a fire will not stop us.”

A GoGundMe fundraiser will help the restaurant’s 29 employees with expenses while they look for new jobs, Altamirano said. Many employees had worked at the restaurant for decades; at least one waiter has never had another job, he said.

The fundraiser brought in $9,000 of its $25,000 goal.

“We’re just one big family,” he said. “Our longest serving employee has been with Alejandra for 22 years. I think that says a lot.”

The family atmosphere and high-end service are qualities that customers have been responding to for three decades. Visalia foodies lamented the indefinite closure of the restaurant following the fire.

“My heart breaks for the owners and staff of Alejandra’s,” Lora Keen Griffith wrote on social media. “This is our favorite restaurant. For over 20 years we have had so many great meals and great times here.”

Barayn Cruz of ServiceMaster by Benevento works Friday, May 6, 2022 in the lobby of the Fox Theater to clear smoke damage from Sunday's fire to nearby businesses.

Décor à Adorer — no more

As a downtown heirloom aims to rise from the ashes, a booming home decor store has to give up.

Decor to Adore owner Brenda Chavez says the second fire that has leveled her small business in eight months is a challenge she cannot overcome.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “We lost everything – twice.”

The first iteration of the store suffered heavy damage when a fire broke out last August on Houston Avenue and Ben Maddox Way.

The cause of this fire is still under investigation.

On Monday, police arrested the man they believe started the downtown blaze, almost before the ashes had settled. Jessie Hager, 56, of Visalia, faces two counts of arson and just over six years in prison, if convicted.

“I don’t know why they did it,” Chavez said of the alleged arsonist. “I don’t know why my two stores burned down.”

Chavez worked at Visalia Hobby Lobby for 11 years before pursuing his passion – interior design. She opened Decor to Adore downtown on November 22.

Because the business was between insurance policies, Chavez says it stands to lose up to $60,000. Her family organized an online fundraiser to help defray these costs.

“Business was starting to pick up,” she said. “We were new in town and there were a lot of people who didn’t know us yet.”

Now, says Chavez, they probably never will.

“I can’t go through that again,” she said.

Thick smoke fills Main Street Sunday, May 1, 2022 as firefighters work on a blaze in downtown Visalia near the Fox Theater.

The future of the city center at stake

Downtown Visalia had yet to recover from damage caused by a 2018 fire that tore through a city block directly across from Alejandra.

The condemned lot is covered in a mural that was meant to be temporary but has been around for almost four years. Of the four businesses destroyed by this fire, only one – Pacific Treasure & Gourmet – remains downtown.

Could the same fate befall the seemingly prime real estate just steps from the historic Fox Theatre?

Mayor Steve Nelsen says no.

“The owner is very, very determined (to rebuild),” he said. “It’s refreshing to hear, but there’s no timeline yet.”

In the meantime, Downtown Visalians has organized its own fundraiser to support displaced employees. The downtown association, also led by Nelsen, raised $4,000 in just two days, he said.

“If we can maintain the momentum, we can hopefully make a real difference in the lives of employees who have been impacted by this tragic incident,” he said. “A lot of firefighters will tell you that if they have to go through a devastating fire in their career, that’s a lot.

“We had two fires.

The Tulare County Workforce Investment Board is also working with Alejandra to educate staff about programs — including scholarships, utilities and rental assistance — that are available. to help.

Workers begin boarding three businesses in downtown Visalia west of the Fox Theater that were charred by Sunday's fire.

The office is located directly across from Alejandra’s on Main, making it an ideal meeting place for workers and management, said Ryan Leisure, business resource specialist.

He noted that fires have become the most common reason the council’s rapid response team steps in to help displaced employees.

“Whether they suffered a fire at another event or lost their jobs during the pandemic… It’s a tragedy,” he said. “People are really struggling.”

Joshua Yeager is a journalist at the Visalia Times-Delta and a member of the Report for America corps. It covers the news deserts of Tulare County with a focus on the environment and local government.

Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and stay up to date on everything happening in Tulare County for as little as $1 per month. Subscribe today.

David H. Henry