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Blaze destroys Chicken King

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published February 21, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Stefanie Jurasik, foreground right, hugs fellow waiter Bonnie Yoakam as people gather at the Chicken King in Hernando. "It's terrible, just awful," Jurasik said.

HERNANDO - Outside the Chicken King restaurant on Tuesday there were people sobbing and telling stories.

An early morning fire had destroyed the place that many called their second home, and that at least one person called a monument in Citrus County.

For 33 years, the Chicken King was popular among law officers and a large clientele of snowbirds who came from such places as New York, Minnesota and Canada to enjoy a quaint dining experience. It was famous for its fried chicken and chatty waiters.

Frank Finger, 67, a customer for 23 years, heard about the fire and rushed to the restaurant. His daughter, Monday Griffin, 34, has worked there since she was a middle school student.

"This place was a landmark" Finger said. "Everyone knew each other."

The fire started a little after 4 a.m. in the kitchen. Tony Jurasik, the cook, said one of fryers caught fire shortly after he arrived to prepare for the breakfast crowd.

He tried using a fire extinguisher and pouring salt on the flames but nothing worked, he said.

He called 911, and the dispatcher told him and a waiter to run outside. Firefighters from Inverness arrived and put out the fire within 25 minutes.

Fire officials could not be reached for comment.

Bonnie Yoakam, a waiter for three years, said customers had been stopping by all day to offer condolences and help.

"They were devastated," she said. "This was their second home."

Some customers had been coming for more than 20 years and ate two or three meals there a day.

Over the years, customers brought statues of chickens and asked the owners to emblazon their T-shirts with the restaurant's logo.

When people gave directions, they said "turn right at the Chicken King," and not turn right at County Road 486. One woman planned to have her wedding reception there.

They wondered what would happen to the waiters who have become like family to some. There's Nancy Shaw, who has worked there more than 20 years; Monday Griffin, 18 years; Claudette Smith, 12 years; and Yoakam, who at three years calls herself the rookie.

The Chicken King had just switched owners.

The owners, Joyce and David Hunter, said they have plans to rebuild. In the meantime, they plan to start a trust fund for the waiters.

They stood outside the charred remains of their restaurant Tuesday waiting for a representative from their insurance company. They gave each other high-fives and hugs to keep their spirits up.

"We'll be up and running again," said David Hunter, who then proceeded to lead the group in a chant: "Go Team Chicken King."

Tammy Hunter, their daughter who bakes pies, walked outside with two wooden plaques that survived the fire.

One said: "Kitchen Closed. This Chick's Had It."

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 20:11:18]


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