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Fire closes popular downtown Cedar Rapids eatery

Riley's Cafe owner hopes to reopen, but maybe in a new location

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CEDAR RAPIDS — With temperatures pushing 90 degrees and the heat index even higher, firefighters responded Tuesday afternoon to a fire at Riley’s Cafe in downtown Cedar Rapids.

More than two dozen firefighters were on the scene, 836 First Ave. NE, in response to the three-alarm blaze that fire officials said started between the ceiling and roof of the restaurant.

One firefighter was transported to St. Luke’s Hospital of UnityPoint for a heat-related illness, said Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow. He said the illness is non-life-threatening.

Tara Braun, a manager at Moose McDuffy’s, located next door to Riley’s, said she reported the fire to the Cedar Rapids Fire Department at about 3:35 p.m. after she smelled smoke.

“I walked in the back door of (Moose McDuffy’s) and it was smokey, so we started making sure it wasn’t anything in our building,” Braun said. “We looked in Riley’s door and it was totally blacked out with smoke.”

No other injuries were reported as Riley’s closed at 2 p.m. and no employees were in the building at the time of the fire, said Andy Olesen, battalion chief for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department.

UnityPoint’s diabetes education building, a St. Luke’s clinic, Moose McDuffy’s and Citywide Cleaners were evacuated, according to witnesses at the scene.

Buelow said the fire caused “extensive damage” to Riley’s and “significant smoke damage” to Moose McDuffy’s. He said firefighters were able to bring the fire under control around 4:50 p.m.

Six fire engines, a ladder truck, rescue truck and command vehicles were at the scene along with 30 firefighters, Buelow said. The Hiawatha Fire Department also sent an engine and three-person crew to help battle the fire.

First Avenue East was closed between Seventh and 10th streets SE to provide firefighters space to work, according to the Cedar Rapids Police Department. First Avenue was partially reopened shortly after 6 p.m.

Riley’s Owner Richard Pankey said the restaurant is closed indefinitely until further notice.

“We’re very fortunate that no one was hurt,” Pankey said. “That’s the biggest thing about all of this. It’s quite a loss for the community because it’s such an icon and meeting place for people. It’s a shame Cedar Rapids lost it.”

President Barack Obama had breakfast with three Iowa veterans during a stop at Riley’s on Aug. 15, 2012.

According to a department release, after the fire was extinguished the fire investigator found that the fire “originated in or near a ventilation fan in the ceiling over a dishwashing/service area.” However, the exact cause of the fire is still undetermined.

Though there are three other Riley’s locations in Cedar Rapids, the First Avenue cafe — which Pankey has owned for 13 years — was popular because of it’s location. Pankey said if damage is too significant to reopen, he expects to find a new home in another part of the city.

Riley’s has eateries at 2727 Sixth St. SW, 2010 Sylvia Ave. NE and 576 Boyson Road NE.

“Next steps will be finding other places for the staff to work here to accommodate those families that depend on this location to make an income,” Pankey said. “If people want to come to Riley’s for food, hopefully they can come to the other three locations.”

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