Police investigating burned-down, short-lived South Loop BBQ
Trial by fire
02/03/2011 4:00 PM
Some windows are boarded up, one is smoke-stained. The menus still hang to the left of the front doors that remain locked. The smoke may have cleared, but suspicion still lurks.
In less than three months, the South Loop saw the opening and closing of a new restaurant: Ole’ Hardwood.
The upscale barbecue joint, located at 1315 South Wabash Ave., unlatched its doors on October 22, 2010. Calling itself a “gastro-smokehouse” the restaurant’s website touted bacon-wrapped dates, wood plank cooking and “competition ribs.”
But local TV, newspapers and blogs didn’t take to the smokehouse’s rustic fare.
Pat Bruno at Chicago Sun-Times called the menu “a train wreck.” Time Out Chicago’s Julia Kramer wrote “it would be better for my appetite if I could forget the tough, congealed-tasting meat, caked with mushy dry rub,” adding that her favorite dish was the cole slaw. The Chicago Reader’s Emily Withrow said the pulled pork “was a bit of a disaster.
Hardwood was only the critics’ punching bag until December 30th, when it went up in flames.
“It was a Stolen Box Alarm fire,” said Quention Curtis, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department. “That’s our way of saying we needed additional help that night.”
The fire started at 4:45 a.m., said Curtis, and was put out within an hour. Investigators called the incident suspicious. Now it’s officially deemed incendiary.
“We’re not saying its arson,” said Curtis. “But we turned it over to the [Chicago Police Department] Bomb and Arson Unit.”
Now a month since the incident, the Police Department is still looking to how the fire sparked.
“The investigation is still ongoing,” said Chicago Police Officer Derryl Beaty.
“The cause of the fire is undetermined,” said Officer Anne Dwyer, a spokeswoman for the police. “What officers submitted to a lab for signs of an intentionally set fire came back inconclusive.”
Ole’ Hardwood is the third restaurant in three years to open and close at 1315 S. Wabash. The restaurant’s owner, Julius Thomas, opened and closed Exposure Tapas in 2009, and opened and closed Utopia in 2010.
Despite multiple attempts to contact Thomas, he could not be reached for comment.
“Everything shady started after Thanksgiving,” said Alexander Carlin, the former general manager and sommelier of Ole’ Hardwood, who said he quit in December.
Carlin said the restaurant had problems paying its food suppliers, so the restaurant would sometimes run out of menu items. On top of that, Carlin claimed his boss wasn’t paying the employees either.
So in December, Carlin said he’d had enough and quit.
“I knew I had to leave the sinking ship,” said Carlin. “The operation put undue and unreasonable strain on my employees financially, and procedurally that I did not feel comfortable taking part in.”
Upon leaving, Carlin says the owner asked him to sign a confidentiality agreement, which he declined to sign until he was paid, he said.
Ten days later, the building went up in flames.
Carlin thought many parts of the restaurant might not have been up to fire code, but Fire Department spokesman Curtis said he wasn’t sure about that. Since it had opened so recently, Curtis said he thought it was probably up to code.
“You can’t open your establishment without official clearance,” Curtis said.