An icon rises from the ashes as Seekonk's Grist Mill Restaurant is rebuilt
SEEKONK — In the 13 months since an early morning blaze rendered the renowned and revered Grist Mill Tavern on the Rhode Island-Massachusetts line in Seekonk just about to ashes, Greg Esmay has been diligently and deliberately bringing the iconic eatery back to life.
Mr. Esmay, the East Bay restauranteur who owns the Grist Mill as well the Wharf Tavern in Warren, understands full well the gravity of his attempt. The Grist Mill isn't just another restaurant on what is a very crowded local landscape. It held and still holds an indelible spot on the minds of its many patrons.
"I can't explain it really," Mr. Esmay said during a recent interview at the site where he meets every Wednesday morning with those charged with rebuilding his business.
"Obviously we're here everyday. We know the Grist Mill," he continued. "We know a lot of people come in, but we were getting emails and stuff from Florida, California, all across the country. We even got a couple internationally from people who were away. And while we always knew there were a lot of people, we got thousands and thousands of emails and all with stories. Some of them were just about coming in, but some of them were about events that happened in their lives and about how long families have been coming here.
"That's when we knew it had to be put back and put back right. You couldn't just put up a building and slap on the Grist Mill sign."
The signs of Grist Mill's reemergence are coming into focus with each passing day and week. The exterior structure was rebuilt a couple months ago, windows put back into the openings and siding placed back on the outside.
"For some reason, people saw the windows in and they thought we were about to open. They were calling the Wharf trying to make reservations," Mr. Esmay said.
Interior work is well underway. There are some minor changes to the floor plan, but the size and scope of the Grist Mill remains the same as it's been for nearly a century. The gabled ceilings will return. All the flooring, the underpinnings were saved after the fire and are the same.
"What we want most to know is that, yes, it is taking some time, but what we're trying to do is rebuild the Grist Mill," Mr. Esmay said. "It's not just a building. When it's all said and done we want it to look like it's supposed to. That's the reason why we're putting the gables back. We could have done it without them and from the outside it would have looked the same, but from the inside you would have seen a ceiling. That wasn't going to happen."
The main difference patrons will find when the Grist Mill reopens will be the locations of the lounge and banquet areas. They've changed sides, the banquet area now near the adjacent pond. Also, a second fireplace was discovered behind the wall where the old banquet area was located and now will be the focal point for the new lounge.
"We're definitely halfway there, but it's an interesting thing because something you think won't take much time seems to take forever and something you think, oh, that will take a while actually takes no time at all," Mr. Esmay explained. "So I don't even think about it anymore. I've given up. We just meet every Wednesday and go over some of the redesigns and see where we're at. I'm still hoping for sometime in the fall, late fall now. But I'm still aiming to be open for the holidays."
The date June 24, 2012, literally and figuratively, is emblazoned in the mind of Greg Esmay. It's the day his life as well as that of his family, employees and customers changed, at least for a while.
"Sometimes I have to think about it because it's getting so far away, but it's a process," Mr. Esmay said of the fire that torched the Grist Mill, which was sparked by an overturned tractor trailer truck delivering bananas. "It started on June 24 and the rebuild was never a question. It was always going to happen unless it couldn't. So we started that day, salvaging what we could."
Mr. Esmay needed to recruit any and every available body to help start the reclamation process, even enlisting his mother, Mary Crockett, to fend off memorabilia seekers.
"My mother had to sit there and tell people not to take anything, that we were saving this and that," Mr. Esmay said. "A woman walked up and asked for a brick because her father had helped rebuild the fireplace after the last fire. It's amazing the connection people have to this place."
At first, business neighbor Vic's Antiques graciously allowed Mr. Esmay and his people to store any remnants they could salvage. Large bins were then placed on the premises where the rest of keepsakes were placed. Any wood that could be saved was. Mr. Esmay said it's been stripped and planed for reuse, going up on the outside of the building and around the windows.
"The building is being rebuilt of itself, as much as it could," Mr. Esmay said.
For inspiration during the project, Mr. Esmay didn't have to look too far. As mentioned earlier, a near identical fire ripped through the Grist Mill in the late 1950s, leading to a previous rebuild of the restaurant.
"There was a very large fire in 1957 that shut down the Grist Mill for three years. It re-opened in 1960. And they did an incredible job because I have pictures of the Grist Mill in the 30s and 40s and when it reopened in '60, the building didn't look all that different," Mr. Esmay said. "The fire in 1957 did almost as much damage as this one, but people had forgotten about it because they did such a great job of putting back together.
"Our goal is for someone to walk in here 10 years from now and say how did they have a fire? And if we can achieve that same thing, then we've done it right."
There was some concern, both internally and externally, that the Grist Mill might not be able to be rebuilt in much the same way as it once stood. With the assistance of Seekonk officials as well as state administrators, those fears were quickly alleviated. The Grist Mill will look and feel almost exactly as it did on June 23, 2012, but just a bit better with a more modern infrastructure.
"It's taller because of laws that have been changed for head clearances. People keep asking me if it's larger. The building is a little taller, but the footprint is the same. It's on the exact same foundation as it was. Everybody is convinced it's different, but it's the same building. I think once it gets painted the darker color and the chimneys are put in, it will start looking more like the old place," said Mr. Esmay.
He added, "The town was great. Everybody was great. I guess I entered into it with some bit of naiveté thinking it could be done quickly. But while everyone has been as helpful as they can be, it still takes time. Especially because we're building a certain kind of building. You look at the ceilings, the walls, this all being done to replicate what was here before."
For the people
The Grist Mill fire didn't just take down a structure, it also took jobs away from employees, including many from East Providence and surrounding towns, and taken patrons away from their favorite place to dine.
Mr. Esmay, who has operated the Grist Mill for 13 years and owned it for two, said he was fortunate to have been able to offer much of his staff positions at the Wharf Tavern and welcomed many of his former customers to the noted Warren waterfront establishment.
"A lot of them are working for me at the Wharf. The kitchen crew is over there and a lot of my servers. Anyone who wanted to go there and who could, is there. We're still in touch with a lot of them, and we're hoping that most if not all them come back," said Mr. Esmay.
Of the rebuilding process, he continued, "We're doing this because the people have been so great to us. They've been so supportive. They've been coming into the Wharf. They've been going over there and telling us they hope we're going to reopen. But they've been great to us. The support we have got has been fantastic and we'd just like to thank everybody every time we get a chance."
Mr. Esmay has also received significant support from the contracting and banking industries in his request to rebuild the Grist Mill, a cost that isn't cheap.
"The estimates are little over $3 million. It's costing me a small fortune. The insurance companies, I don't want to keep fighting with them," Mr. Esmay said. "We have a great bank, BankNewport. They've been tremendous to work with. They've allowed me to rebuild the Grist Mill. If they had decided to pull out of this, I don't know what would have happened because the insurance companies have been nothing but a pain in the neck. They won't settle with us. If BankNewport called the loan, this wouldn't have happened. There would just be a plaque saying here was the site of the Grist Mill."
Besides, the owner, the core group of team leaders during the project has been Jim Reinke, owner of Reinke Construction formerly of Seekonk and now based out of Leicester, Mass.;, Jo-Anne Spencer, an interior designer based in Seekonk; Joe Christie, of Trimark United East, a kitchen design and supply company located in South Attleboro; and Bob Connors, of STV Architecture and Engineering from Boston.
Mr. Connors, especially, has been a close confidant to Mr. Esmay from the time the fire struck. House neighbors in Warwick, Mr. Esmay almost immediately leaned on Mr. Connors for advice and guidance.
"When I needed somebody to tell me what to do, I asked him," Mr. Esmay said. "I had so many different people coming up to me telling me different things, I had so many adjusters telling me to sign this or that, I really didn't know what to do. So I went home and called Bob, and he asked if I wanted him to take a look at. I did, and ever since he's been working on it. He's a super nice guy."
Mr. Esmay added, "We have all kinds of people working here, local people like Jo-Anne and J.J. Construction, they're pretty much doing this at cost, which has been incredibly helpful because it's still $3 million and if they had been charging full price it would have been a lot more. And I don't what I would've done. But they've all, and there are a lot of different companies, they've all been really, really good to us. And I just want to say how much we appreciate it."
That an overturned truck delivering bananas started the fire brings a little tiny bit of levity to the situation, but also finally brought the hectic traffic pattern at the Grist Mill location to the fore. The town and state will reconstruct the area next summer, installing stop lights and creating more direct means of travel.
As for putting a unique twist on the menu in memory of the accident and the rebirth of the Grist Mill, Mr. Esmay quipped, "There might have to be bananas flambé on the menu. I've always wanted to have that. When I do the opening, maybe I'll come out and do it. But, hey, it was just one of those things that happen. It was such a freak accident. You just deal with and move on. That's what we're doing each day until we're finished."