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The proprietors of Sharon’s Café are hoping to rebuild after a New Year’s Eve fire shut down the South Corvallis eatery.

Located in the South Gate Plaza shopping center at 1894 SW Third St., Sharon’s has been a fixture in South Corvallis since 2002, when Sharon Cramblett took over the former Bev’s Café. The place has changed hands a couple of times since then, most recently in late November, when Brian Vinson purchased the business from Ed and Nikki Seyler, who had recently closed the restaurant because of medical issues.

Sharon’s reopened in mid-December under Vinson’s ownership with his brother, Jamie Vinson, running the kitchen and their sister, Lisa Feierfeil, overseeing the dining room.

Because the café had been shut down for a time prior to the purchase, they didn’t know how much business to expect, but the revived Sharon’s had a steady stream of business from the jump.

“It was good — way more than we expected,” Feierfeil said. “It was a surprise to see how many people were waiting for this place to get bought and open back up.”

One big reason, by all accounts, was the food. The three siblings grew up in the restaurant business, learning the trade in their grandparents’ string of Beach Pancake and Dinner House restaurants on the Oregon coast.

While keeping much of the old Sharon’s Café diner-style menu, they had added some of the old family recipes, from cinnamon rolls to Mexican entrees to clam chowder.

“We have a signature breakfast that’s followed us for years, the Big Biscuit Breakfast,” Feierfeil said. “It was a big seller.”

But on Monday, only about two weeks after the business reopened, disaster struck.

A fire broke out in the prep area at the back of the restaurant in a laundry basket full of freshly washed kitchen towels. According to Brian Vinson, the Corvallis fire marshal told him the towels probably ignited due to a chemical reaction involving residual grease, bleach and detergent.

“There were no other ignition sources around,” he said.

Nobody was in the restaurant when the blaze started Monday evening, and fire damage was limited primarily to the back room of the 2,500-square-foot café, but smoke and soot got everywhere. Most of the restaurant equipment was ruined, the walls and furniture will require extensive cleanup and all the food had to be disposed of.

“We’re going to have to completely restock everything, down to the salt and pepper,” Vinson said.

“Even the iPad we use for credit card payments is probably toast.”

Insurance should cover the cost of replacing damaged equipment and cleaning up smoke-damaged fixtures, Vinson said, and he’s hoping to reopen in two to three months. In the meantime, he’s still got income from his day job, working as a project manager for a Salem construction company.

But he’s had to lay off his five employees, and his brother and sister are also out of work until the café reopens.

“I quit my job to come here,” said Jamie Vinson, who cooked for a number of mid-valley restaurants before taking charge of his own kitchen at Sharon’s.

“This has been my dream for many years.”

South Corvallis resident Christie Koch, a customer of the cafe, launched a fundraising effort on the GoFundMe website to help out (see info box for details). As of Friday evening, the account had received about $200 in donations.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, they have insurance, it’s fine,’” Koch said. “Well, insurance doesn’t always cover everything, and it doesn’t always come in right away.”

Besides, Koch added, she wants to see Sharon’s back in business again as soon as possible.

“They have a long tradition of good quality food at a good price,” she said. “I think it is important for Southtown to have affordable food options like that.”

Brian Vinson said the funds will be a welcome relief for his idled workers.

“I just want people to know that whatever money goes in there it will go to the employees to make up for the salaries they’re not getting,” he said.

Also on Vinson’s mind is the family of Grant Converse, who owned Corvallis Furniture a few doors down from Sharon’s. After he learned about the fire Monday night, Converse was reportedly racing to the scene to make sure his business was safe from the flames. But there was a mechanical problem with his truck and he was unable to stop.

According to an incident report from the Corvallis Police Department, Converse downshifted to slow the vehicle, and his two passengers were able to jump out safely. Converse jumped out as well but was injured and later died at the hospital.

A GoFundMe account set up for his fiancée, Angie Nelson, had raised more than $4,000 by Friday evening (see box for details). A public memorial service for Converse is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, 2945 NW Circle Blvd.

Vinson said he and his siblings are haunted by Converse’s death.

“That hit us pretty hard,” he said. “On a daily basis I say to myself, ‘If I hadn’t bought this damn restaurant, that guy would still be alive.’”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald