Early on Wednesday morning I awoke to messages on various mediums alerting me that 'Za's', one of my former employers was "on fire!". Sure enough, in waking up and getting on the computer it became clear that there was a major fire underway on the University of Illinois campus. In addition to working with Ed Kieser in the WILL weather office, I worked for three years in a popular 'italian cafe' on campus. It was one of the most popular places on campus, and constantly had lines out the door on Friday and Saturday nights before the college crowd hit the bars. I had a love / hate relationship with that place, but I did meet a lot of cool people working there, and it funded plenty of chases from 2006 to 2009.
My former employer, Mia Za's Italian Cafe` also shared a building with my all-time favorite place to eat; Zorba's. Home of America's favorite gyros! This place has been a campus staple since it's inception in the early 1970's. In fact, both were once featured in a Sports Illustrated article outlining the time line of a typical student's day before attending an Illinois basketball game. Zorba's for lunch, and Za's for dinner said SI. Zorba's was absolutely filled with old Illinois sports memorabilia dating back to old bowl games and Final Four births from the 70s and 80s. They had a big plasma TV that I sat and watched the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament on when I visited Champaign-Urbana and had lunch at my favorite spot just four days before the fire.
Thanks to the amazing world of social media I was able to do nothing but sit and watch these two places burn all morning. This video was shot by someone in the apartments across the street, and is what really made it sink in for me: http://illinoishomepage.net/storm-tracker-weather/share-your-weather-photos/share-your-weather-videos#vmix_media_id=74633241
Pretty weird to watch a place that I worked almost daily a couple years ago, and a place that I just ate lunch at a few days ago up in flames. The area above Zorba's and Mia Za's was Mia Za's seating area. I'd hide up by those windows and check data on my phone on the morning of a chase day, or to keep tabs on weather elsewhere. And then Zorba's, I would go out to lunch with my parents there when I was just a kid. It was one of those 'treat' places. Gyros aren't the first choice of your average kid, but I couldn't and still can't get enough of them. In being a connoisseur of gyros, I've yet to find anywhere to top Zorba's.
I used to go out to lunch occasionally with my friends to Za's, and it always had a fun atmosphere. So, when the U of I budget cuts had my hours at next to nothing at my primary job in the weather office at WILL, I went on a trip to campustown in search of an additional source of income. Za's was the first place I went (I was going next door to Zorba's next!) and the GM at the time liked hiring townies, and said the job was mine if I wanted it. I started the next day, and worked exactly three years there before transferring to Northern Illinois University in 2009.
I'm not sure what either place is going to do in terms of rebuilding. I don't think they have been able to get inside and determine a cause yet, because the building needed to be partially demolished before it would be safe for an investigation crew to enter. Only after a cause is determined will the owners even be allowed to get in and assess the damage. My guess is Zorba's rebuilds somewhere, if not in the same building. The founder of Mia Za's has franchised to other college towns in the midwest, so it may be that he just focuses on the other stores, and opening new locations. However, this was his first, and the lines out the front door on the weekends show that the place has a solid following and it would surprise me if he just let it go. But, time will tell the real story of what kind of a time frame we are looking at for renovation. Much of the top floor needs to be demolished, and the main floor is likely a complete mess with fire, smoke, and water damage. There is another video that showed water rushing out the front door of Za's like a river.
I've turned this into a novel, but just wanted to post a few photos that I took yesterday evening once I got back into town. They were in the process of demolishing the front facade. It's even more exposed this evening but my phone battery was too low to take any photos. My guess is they'll get whatever demolishing they need to get done, and then the building will be covered up while they do their renovations.
Here are the photos that I grabbed while they worked. You could still smell charred wood.
For comparison, this was the only photo I could find in a quick look for the building before the fire. Obviously only the Za's portion is shown, but you get the idea.
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