Bethany Clough

Eating Out: Outpouring for Fresno's Train Depot restaurant

Tragedy always seems to be followed with stories of kindness and goodwill. We saw it at the Boston Marathon bombings last week when people ran toward the blast sites to help strangers.

And we saw it a day later in Fresno, in the aftermath of a fire that burned The Train Depot restaurant. The fire at the 30-year-old restaurant in the Mayfair Shopping Center on First Street just north of McKinley Avenue took the restaurant down to its bones. But it was followed by an impressive outpouring of love and support from customers and others.

That support is already rebuilding the spirits of the owner as she makes plans to resurrect the restaurant.

"It's absolutely amazing," owner Pat Escovedo, says of the reaction from customers.

They offered condolences and well wishes via phone calls, text messages and in person. There were offers by handymen and welders to rebuild. A massage therapist offered stressed employees free massages. Customers gave their phone numbers and vowed to collect more of the train memorabilia that made the restaurant so unique.

The popular breakfast and lunch spot was known for its country-fried steak and biscuits and gravy. It posted a 4.5 out of 5 stars rating on and was packed on weekends. The miniature trains that ran around the inside of the restaurant, along with black and white photographs, added a charm that no other restaurant in town had.

After the fire, The Train Depot's Facebook page was flooded with customers declaring their love for the restaurant.

"These customers are so dedicated and just love us so much," Escovedo says. "I'm so so touched by everything on there."

A sample from Edward Murrietta: "Where do we sign up to help rebuild Fresno's greatest little landmark? Truly a family favorite."

Escovedo soaked up every ounce of the well wishes. She needed it. After getting a call from her alarm company at 2:20 a.m. April 16, Escovedo rushed to the restaurant where she had worked for 14 years as a waitress and bought with her husband four years ago.

She watched it burn.

The fire started in the attic space of either the Super Suds laundry or Jesse's Seafood. When firefighters arrived, massive amounts of smoke were billowing from the building.

They were searching for the fire inside, including inside the restaurant, when the ceiling started to cave in. They pulled out and three minutes later the roof collapsed. Flames roared through the building.

Many of the firefighters there that night were regulars at the restaurant. "The boys," as Escovedo calls them, offered words of comfort, too.

Last week, the building was reduced to a roofless pile of rubble with the walls barely standing. One of The Train Depot's double glass doors remained unbroken, the name on the door darkened with smoke and the "please wait to be seated" sign listing at an angle.

The cause is still undetermined.

The Sacramento-based owner of the building was in shock. Three of the four businesses had been there for over a decade, always paying their rent on time. The relative newcomer, the Thai Phooket-3 restaurant, was destroyed, too.

As Escovedo met with her insurance rep at the restaurant, car after car pulled into the parking lot. Its occupants expressed shock, followed by a declaration of love and support for Escovedo and the restaurant.

Cook Juan Betancourt, who has worked at the restaurant for all of its 30 years, was with her that day.

"He says, 'Boss, I feel like I should go get a lounge chair and some peanuts and sit here and tell everybody that we have plans and we're going to get up as fast as we can.' "

The support helped.

After the fire, Escovedo felt like she wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. But thinking of all those kind comments kept her going.

"I woke up this morning and I'm like, 'I can't let these people down.' "

Both The Train Depot and the building's owner plan to rebuild. The Train Depot is looking for a location to open in temporarily.

But the goal is to be back in the rebuilt building the second it is ready, Escovedo says.

In the meantime, she continues to be overwhelmed with the outpouring of support.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate our customers and staff," she says. "It's at times like this when you realize how many good people there are in the world."