Disputes, legal battles keep landmark Zelienople restaurant closed since 2011 fire
By Rick Wills
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Zelienople's landmark Kaufman House restaurant has been closed since October 2011, when a fire did about $300,000 in damage, and the owner isn't sure when it will reopen.
Hopefully, in the fall, said Ken Pilarski, who bought the restaurant in 1974.
The closure is not just a problem for Pilarski, who has been embroiled in disputes and litigation with insurance, restoration and cleaning companies. The loss of the 110-year-old, three-story brick restaurant has hurt the economy in the borough of about 3,800 people, according to local officials and other business owners.
“He did a great business for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now, after 3 p.m., it looks like a ghost town around here,” said Joe Maddalon, owner of Maddalon Jewelers on Main Street in Zelienople, next to the Kaufman House.
“I'd love for him to be open as soon as he can. I'll even go over and help him paint,” said Maddalon, who says his own business has declined since the restaurant closed.
People frequently pull into the restaurant's parking lot and are puzzled to find it closed, he said.
Donald Pepe, Zelienople's manager, said he's gotten dozens of calls asking when it will reopen.
“There are just so many people who had wedding parties, confirmation parties or graduation parties at the Kaufman House,” Pepe said.
Pilarski said he hopes to reopen the Kaufman House this fall, though he originally thought he could reopen it within several months after the fire.
Court records show the fire generated at least four lawsuits. Pilarski said he's battling legal issues, but he did not want to comment on them.
Countywide Restoration of Cranberry, the company that did the initial cleanup of the Kaufman House, sued Pilarski demanding $63,802 in payment.
“We have not been paid. I arrived on site personally the day of the fire. We got rid of the smoke and odor. After about six months of not getting paid, we filed a lawsuit,” said Mark Loughran, the company's operations manager.
Pilarski, meanwhile, is suing the QBE Insurance Corp. of New York. According to court documents filed by Pilarski, QBE refused to pay for repairs and says the Kaufman House's extinguishing system had not been properly inspected.
QBE declined to comment.
The fire started in a kitchen gas-fired broiler and spread into the exhaust ducts.
Pilarski is suing the Schaffer's Air Conditioning Systems Cleaning & Fire Protection of Prospect and the ABC Fire Extinguisher Co. of Ross, a fire protection and safety company.
Schaffer's could not be reached for comment.
Insurance companies' standards require restaurants to undergo fire safety inspections every six months.
According to Debbie Fannie, owner of ABC, Kaufman House's fire prevention equipment had not been inspected since October 2010.
“We were out there in April 2011, and the manager turned us away. He said they were too busy that day. It should have been rescheduled and never was. I feel a moral obligation, but it's the restaurant that's legally responsible for rescheduling,” Fannie said.
Pilarski said the fire was the first serious problem in the nearly 40 years that he's owned the restaurant.
Most of the kitchen equipment needs to be replaced, and the rest of the building had serious smoke damage.
The fire took the jobs of about 50 people, including Pilarski's son, Doug Pilarski, who managed the restaurant but now works in a factory.
“Almost my whole staff wants to come back to work here,” Ken Pilarski said.
Ever since he bought the restaurant, it has been a family operation. Pilarski's first wife, Marjorie Pilarski, worked there, as did all four of their children.
“This is an interesting business. It's totally different every day,” said Pilarski, who still comes into to work at his office in the restaurant every day.
Kaufman House served about 400 people for breakfast each Sunday. It was something like three restaurants in one, with a coffee shop used only for breakfast, several dining rooms and also a bar.
The extensive dinner and lunch menus included sandwiches, seafood, pasta and meat dishes. The most expensive dinner entrees cost a bit less than $20. Some of the more exotic items on the menu were a lobster pot and a cranberry goat cheese salad.
“I get at least 100 calls every weekend asking me when we are going to reopen,” said Pilarski.
The restaurant has been the site of several taverns dating back to the early 19th century. The existing building went up in 1903 after a fire destroyed a tavern at the same site. Before 1924, the restaurant was known as the Grand Central Hotel. Since 1888, the property has had four owners.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at email@example.com.
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