Grumpy’s Strong

Middleburg restaurant vows to return following devastating fire

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The sign in front of the Chick-fil-A near Branan Field Road doesn’t promote its chicken sandwiches or frosted lemonade. Instead, it offered support to a competitor, Grumpy’s Restaurant.

“Praying 4 our neighbors at Grumpy’s.”

A fire at the popular restaurant across the street from Chick-fil-A not only forced ardent supporters to find a new place for breakfast and lunch but also prompted a groundswell of support.

“In times of despair and accidents of this kind, when your neighbors step up, it’s really all you can ask for, especially for a small community like Clay County and Middleburg,” said Grumpy’s CEO Dan DeLeon.

The fire started in the back of the restaurant near the dishwashing room. The kitchen area wasn’t involved, but it was heavily damaged by water and soot. DeLeon said it will take up to four months to rebuild. But make so mistake: Grumpy’s will be back.

That was a message 41 employees needed to hear.

DeLeon and Middleburg restaurant owners Dell and Peggy Hoard, and their son and daughter-in-law, Dell Jr. and Courtney, met with their employees the day after the Jan. 19 across the street at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office substation.

Most arrived wearing their Grumpy’s T-shirts. They hugged as they entered. Some cried. As a group, they seemed better prepared to face uncertainty.

They left in tears. And with smiles.

“We gave them two commitments,” DeLeon said. “One, we’re committed to keeping all of our employees. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, anyone without a paycheck. Our commitment to them is to keep everyone employed during this process. Two, is to build back stronger.”

During the meeting, Chick-fil-A store restaurant operator Joe Mayo delivered bags of sandwiches and trays of macaroni and cheese.

“We are neighbors,” Mayo said.

Rebounding from a crisis isn’t new for DeLeon. His Orange Park restaurant was briefly closed, then limited to carryout orders during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He gave unused food to local food banks and he donated two months of his salary to keep his employees paid.

“I donated two months of my salary to kick it off. It was all done internally,” DeLeon said. “We’ll do the same thing here. We’ll get together to see how we will make it happen.”

In addition to offering shifts at the Orange Park and St. Johns restaurants, DeLeon and Hoard said they will make sure the Middleburg staff will get the financial support they desperately need.

“We’re trying to figure all that out right now,” Hoard Jr. said. “You go through all this time you get a group that jells well. We have a good group of girls and guys. Now you just worry. You worry about what’s going to come. You make sure you have your staff in place.

“We plan to keep all of them. The biggest thing is making sure our staff knows this is their home. Nothing’s going to happen to them.”

The community seems ready to do its part.

A single balloon was tied to the front railing in front of the blackened store. It read: “Feel Better.” Dozens of regulars stopped by the restaurant to offer their support as the Hoards sifted through piles of charged debris.

The Hoards said rebuilding the restaurant will be the easy part. The challenge is to keep his group of workers from falling through the cracks.

“Anything the community can do to help our employees … even if that means reaching out and telling them they have their backs,” Hoard Jr. said.

The Middleburg restaurant opened in October 2020. Long lines and an iconic menu were proof Grumpy’s recipe for success worked in the past year, and it’s proof it will bounce back better than ever.

“We will open back up,” Hoard Jr. said. “Some places can’t make this. We are going to survive. We are going to make it back up. And I know the community will be behind us. I don’t know how long this process is going to take us right now, but we’ll be back.”

Hungry fans will be waiting.

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