In the early morning hours on Friday, Rodger Heaton, owner of Elmer’s Texas Barbecue, was jolted from his sleep by a loud boom. Confused and barely aware of his surroundings in the dark hours before daylight, he thought the t.v. had exploded. It quickly became evident the situation was much more serious than that.
“Everything went black, black as can be. No light. Just pitch black and smoky. You think you know your place and that you can make it around in the dark, but this was beyond just dark,” said Heaton.
Fire had engulfed the restaurant upstairs and his apartment underneath, Heaton was able to get out unharmed, but had to watch as his home and business were destroyed.
Heaton said he is grateful for the outpouring of community support he’s received and that right now he’s still in a state of shock and really can’t say what the future holds for him.
“Elmer’s has been a part of my life for the better part of six years,” Heaton said. “A lot of people don’t know that underneath was my primary home, so I lost not just my business but also my primary residence.”
Heaton added he wasn’t injured in the incident—he’s doing okay, and that he’s thankful for the many offers of help from the community, friends and family.
“Physically, I’m fine. Of course, a lot has transpired in the last nine hours that make it hard to put into words and describe how I am feeling.”
Fire departments from Battle Lake, Henning and Ottertail responded to the call that came in around 2:35 a.m. on Friday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
When asked if he knows what happens or how it started, Heaton said he doesn’t know the cause and his timeline isn’t exact.
“Everything was happening so fast and so slow at the same time—or maybe it was the other way around,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
The first responders were concerned about smoke inhalation, but Heaton said he was fine in that regard.
The restaurant, located along Highway 78 just outside of Ottertail, isn’t far from local resident and patron of Elmer’s, Tom Gedde. He said he heard sirens in the middle of the night. Like many who stopped by to survey the damage, his first concern was if Heaton was able to get out safely. He added he’s sad to see this happen and is hopeful Heaton will rebuild: “It’s such a popular place, not just the food, but also the dinner theatre in the pavilion, overall it’s a fun atmosphere.”
Gedde had his wife’s birthday catered by the restaurant last month and said they were great to work with: “They did a wonderful job, very attentive, very accommodating, overall we were very happy with their work.”
Other customers who came by Friday to see the fire damage were also wondering if Heaton will rebuild, like Gedde. They realize it’s probably too soon for the shell-shocked owner to think about it.
Heaton said the dinner theatre shows in the pavilion have been fantastic, and he has the equipment for a brewery, an ongoing project for a couple of years. Both of those activities are in buildings that weren’t damaged by the fire, but they revolve around the main building.
“So, we’ll see what the future holds,” he added with a sigh that belies the exhaustion he’s feeling. “At this moment, I just don’t know. Too much, too fast. I can’t possibly think about the future right now.”
Over the years, it’s been a goal for them to give back and show their support for the community in different ways. One of the ways he does that is with appreciation days.
“We’ve had an appreciation day for teachers, police, and nurses. It’s a little ironic, our next appreciation dinner on September 14 was going to be for firefighters. I may not be able to have a dinner for them now but, I can tell you, I am very appreciative of the work they do and that they were there for me.”