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A year after downtown Alexandria fire, businesses bounce back

No, Raapers restaurant is not moving into the old Tennessee Roadhouse spot, but it and other businesses have plans to keep going a year after fire destroyed their downtown locations

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On Feb. 25, 2020, onlookers watched as fire departments battled the blaze that destroyed six Alexandria businesses and displayed about 20 residents. (Echo Press file photo)
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If they can drive a different route other than through downtown Alexandria, Andy and Cammie Rassat said they do.

It is hard for the Rassats to drive on Broadway and see the empty lot where their business – Raapers Eatery and Ale – stood for more than 25 years.

“We ran that business for our whole married life and half of our lives,” said Cammie Rassat.

A Feb. 25, 2020, early morning fire destroyed four buildings on Broadway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues that housed six businesses, including Raapers , as well as RM Tattoo, Charlie’s Bazaar, Little Darlings Children’s Boutique, Achieve Wellness and Hidden Treasures Collectibles and Comics. The fire also displaced about 20 residents from upper floor apartments.

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Flames were seen shooting out of the top of Raapers restaurant in downtown Alexandria during the Feb. 25, 2020. (Echo Press file photo)

Through her tears, Cammie Rassat said the couple doesn’t go downtown like they used to. She said it’s hard to drive by and not see all the cars in the parking lot. They think about their employees and all their patrons. They think about all the relationships they built throughout the years.

“It’s still so raw, so real,” she said. “And sometimes, it still feels like yesterday.”

READ MORE: See related stories from the downtown fire

The last year has been hard on the Rassats, but Cammie said with the arrival of the coronavirus, everybody has had a hard year. Restaurants and bars, like theirs, spent many months closed and even now are not open to full capacity.

Rebuilding during the pandemic wouldn’t have made sense, they said. And not only because of restrictions, but because of construction costs. The couple said they talked with contractors who said construction costs have skyrocketed.

Cammie said, however, that if they based their decision on emotions and from hearing from so many people how much their business has been missed, she said they would have built immediately.

“It would have been hard not to,” she said.

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Andy and Cammie Rassat stand in front of their catering vehicle. The couple owned Raapers Eatery and Ale restaurant for 25 years. (Contributed)

Over the past year, the Rassats have been blessed though, they said. After the fire, they were still able to operate the Raapers catering business out of a space at the Viking Plaza Mall previously occupied by PretzelMaker.

“The mall was a huge blessing to us,” said Cammie. Although many events, such as the weddings they had booked, were put on hold when COVID-19 hit the area.

“We were trying and we were booking weddings like crazy, but then they were going away like crazy,” said Cammie. “Our heart goes out to all the couples whose plans were ruined because of the virus.”

SEE MORE: More photos were published on the Echo Press Facebook page .

Last year summer and fall, when things were opened up and the weather cooperated, the Rassats were able to get their Raapers food truck up and running, parking it places such as Viking Speedway and Copper Trail Brewing Company.

As soon as the weather gets nice again, the Raapers food truck will roll again. Cammie noted, however, that state law dictates that it can't stay in one spot. The Raapers Facebook page will update where and when it will be parked.

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The Rassats did reveal that they are opening a catering facility, but it's not at the old Tennessee Roadhouse site , despite the rumors.

“It’s not us,” said Cammie. “It is somebody else that is going in there, but we don’t know who. We will be located on our own personal property.”

And not the property downtown, either, she explained, noting that there is interest in that property but that COVID-19 has put plans on hold.

As far building and opening up another Raapers, the Rassats said that's still up in the air.

The catering business is going well and they are booking into 2022 already. Andy said they book not only for weddings, but corporate events or even just businesses who want to provide lunch for their employees.

“We have a lot of COVID boxes,” he said, explaining that they do individual boxed meals and will distribute them to the businesses.

“Our catering is going strong. We’re super happy with that,” Cammie said.

Looking back and thinking about the fire, Andy and Cammie said the biggest blessing was that no one got hurt, no lives were lost. Andy said what they lost were just things and can be replaced. They both shared how thankful they were to all the firefighters and everyone who had worked so hard that day.

They talked about all the people who have reached out since the fire, whether to say how much the restaurant has been missed, to share a story or two about eating at the restaurant or to those who have simply said they were thinking about them or praying for them.

“It doesn’t have to be much, we thank everyone. We are so overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Cammie. “God knows where he wants us to be and what he wants us to be doing. We put our trust in Him to show us the way. God’s timing is always perfect.”

By the grace of God

As devastating as the fire was that ripped through downtown Alexandria one year ago, Dr. Jerod Ochsendorf and Dr. Evan Eigen from Achieve Wellness said it was kind of a blessing in disguise for the chiropractors. They were up and running in a new location quickly.

About five days after the fire – by the grace of God, they said – they were able to find a new space and reopened the following Monday after the fire.

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Firefighters sprayed water over the fire that took place last February in downtown Alexandria. (Echo Press file photo)

“It was incredible,” said Ochsendorf, who opened the business in 2016 in a building on Fifth Avenue behind the tattoo parlor. That building was not directly impacted by the flames, but endured smoke, water and extensive structural damage.

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Jerod Ochsendorf

Achieve Wellness is now in the Willow Creek complex on 30th Avenue East, near the Viking Plaza Mall. Ochsendorf said their business grew, but COVID spread and the business took about a 20% hit. The chiropractors said their business is back to pre-COVID numbers.

Eigen, who joined Achieve Wellness in 2018, said he and Ochsendorf had a big vision for the business and that the fire helped push them along. He said their current space is temporary, but that COVID put a screeching halt to their building plans.

“Our practice has done well and we have grown above and beyond our expectations,” Eigen said.

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Evan Eigen

The two have plans for expansion and have already added a pediatric doctor on board and want to also incorporate a mental health professional as mental health needs are so prevalent and a major part of overall health.

Their plan is to expand Achieve Wellness into a holistic-minded wellness center.

Looking back over the past year, Ochsendorf said he believes both he and Eigen have learned to become better leaders and are helping to lead their team from the rut they were in from the fire and COVID-19 to a place filled with hope and faith.

“The fire really was a blessing and helped push us forward,” he said. “It softened my heart because of the compassion we felt from others and how it brought the businesses together. It was pretty incredible.”

Eigen said that over the past year, he realized even more that God has a plan for everything and is in control. He said now more than ever he puts his faith and trust in God.

After a lot of anxiety right after the fire, Eigen said that it has all turned out “amazingly well.”

The two said their patients have not only leaned on them, but that they also lean on their patients and that they are so thankful and grateful for all those who have reached out to them this past year.

“My heart has been softened and I have grown in faith,” said Eigen. “I grew in my faith and learned to let things go by putting it in God’s hands.”

Ochsendorf said the Alexandria community has been amazing this past year and that for both of them it’s been “pretty incredible to witness and experience.”

“We can’t look back on what we had, we can only move forward,” said Ochsendorf.

Great location

When asked what her thoughts were about the past year, without hesitation Judy McNulty replied as she let out a chuckle, “It sucked.”

“People were out of work, we were all dealing with the virus and we lost our business,” she said.

McNulty and her husband, Gary, are the owners of Hidden Treasures Collectibles and Comics. And for 17 years, their business was on Fifth Avenue and Broadway. But the downtown fire took all that away from them.

However, not all was lost as the McNultys were able to reopen their business rent-free thanks to the management at the Viking Plaza Mall.

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Judy McNulty, owner of Hidden Treasures, stands next to her husband, Gary, in their new location at the Viking Plaza Mall in Alexandria. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)

Businesses lost to the fire were given an option by mall management to relocate at the mall for at least one year without having to pay rent. The McNultys took them up on the offer and Hidden Treasures opened last June next to D. Michael B’s in the old Glenwear spot

“When we were shown the space, I couldn’t believe it,” said McNulty. “It’s such a cool spot. There are two window areas. It’s pretty neat in here.”

McNulty said management at the mall really helped them out not just on rent but by also providing them with fixtures, tables and other items from stores that had been closed down, she said.

The one-year rent-free contract will be expiring soon, but McNulty said they have negotiated rent and terms with management and will be staying at the Viking Plaza Mall.

“We really like it here,” she said. “The mall is busier than what people think. There are actually a lot of people who come out to the mall.”

As much as they enjoy having their business inside the Viking Plaza Mall, McNulty admits she does miss being downtown. She said it was neat to be able to walk around and visit with other shop owners or walk to the post office.

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The lot on Broadway Street near the corner of 5th Avenue in downtown Alexandria sits empty after a fire last February destroyed the four buildings that once sat there. (Echo Press file photo)

Some big pluses to being at the mall: They don’t have to take care of shoveling sidewalks and customers don't have to take stairs to browse in the basement, unlike the downtown spot.

“I think we’re getting more business than when we were downtown,” she said. “We’re better here. Business has increased. I guess it (the fire) was kind of a blessing in disguise.”

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Debris was cleared from the site of the Feb. 25, 2020, fire that destroyed six businesses in downtown Alexandria. (Echo Press file photo)

Related Topics: FIRESALEXANDRIA
Celeste Edenloff is the special projects editor and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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