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Arson suspected at 'Pickle Factory'

A suspected arson fire that shut down a Dent area business could have been worse...yet it couldn't have happened at a worse time.

"They were lucky," said Dent Fire Chief Tim Stoll, of the 4th of July fire at the "Pickle Factory Bar and Grill," which investigators are investigating as an arson. "It's amazing that it didn't burn more than it did."

"The outcome could have really been devastating," said Sharon Baumgart, co-owner of the restaurant with her husband Terry. She credited Dent and Vergas volunteer firefighters for their quick action. "They were amazing; very fast and very professional."

That the fire caused only smoke damage and virtually no structural damage is the good news.

The bad news: The Baumgarts were knocked out of business just as the busiest weekend of the year was beginning.

"It's a huge blow," said Sharon Baumgart. "We had fully stocked freezers and shelves, and were expecting a great weekend. Now, we're sitting on all the inventory. We'll be lucky to re-open by this weekend."

The state fire marshall inspector and the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department are convinced the fire was an arson. A reward of $2,500 has been offered for information leading to an arrest.

Thanks to security cameras installed by the Baumgarts, the evidence of arson is about as clear and incriminating as it could possibly be. The camera shows a vehicle pull into the lot, some time after 3 a.m., according to Chief Stoll. The video shows a shadowy figure climb out of a vehicle and evidently start the fire. Because the matter is under investigation, that is about all of the details that are being released.

"All we can say is that the act was caught on the surveillance camera," said Sharon.

Whether the dark images are visible enough to incriminate a specific person, or a specific vehicle, is uncertain.

Investigators were on the scene amost immediately. The fire marshall was there later that day on July 4. But as of Monday, the insurance adjustor had not come to the scene.

"That has been frustrating, because we can't do anything," said Sharon, noting that they couldn't disrupt things or clean up at all until the adjuster examined the scene. "We couldn't do a thing all weekend but sit and look at the mess."

The Baumgarts were optimistic about a boost in mid-summer business, especially after the Pickle Factory's Wednesday "buck-a-burger night" promotion July 2. More than 400 burgers were served. With the 4th of July falling on a Friday, it had all the indicators of a banner weekend for the business.

Friends, neighbors and family have stepped forward with dozens of offers to help. Several volunteered to bring in portable grills on Wednesday, so the Pickle could host its burger night, outside of the building, if necessary.

"There has been a huge outpouring of support. People have stopped to see if we needed anything," said Sharon, who worked for the previous owner and bought the business in April of 2007.

When Fire Chief Stoll arrived, the fire was confined to one room.

Since there were four hours between the time the camera recorded the start of the fire and when a neighbor called 911, at about 7 a.m., Stoll was astounded that the fire hadn't engulfed the building. Instead, the fire just smoldered in the one room--creating smoke but few flames.

"It could have been a disaster," said Stoll, noting that there were painting products and a propane tank not far away. There were also soda pop tanks in the next room, which are potentially explosive.

"We used a minimal amount of water," said Stoll. Firefighters removed the smoldering shelving and other articles, and once the smoke cleared, the Pickle Factory was structurally intact.

Further evidence that luck was on the Baumgarts' side is the fact that the building is a 1921-constructed wood school building. A very flammable structure, the building served as home to "School District 166" until 1967, when students consolidated into Pelican Rapids. The building was bought in 1979, and renovated into the "District 166 Restaurant."

When the Baumgarts bought the business, they added a new dimension with their unique line of canned items. Sharon's line of food products, bottled under the "Pickle Factory" label, range from pickled gizzards to jams to dill pickles to pickled asparagus.