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DiStefano jumped out of bed and rushed to his popular Burbank fast food eatery, The Dugout, 6300 W. 79th Street. He pulled up just as firefighters were extinguishing the last of the flames.
“It made me physically sick. I was devastated,” DiStefano said after seeing damage to the structure he built from the ground up, over 30 years ago.
According to DiStefano, the fire — which authorities say was electrical in nature — began in the rear wall of the building away from the kitchen area. The flames spread upward and traveled through the ceiling causing widespread damage.
The fire was called in just after 1 a.m. by a Burbank police officer in the area. The officer was on patrol a few blocks away when he smelled smoke and traced it back to The Dugout. Burbank firefighters assisted by fire crews from Bridgeview, Bedford Park, North Palos, and Hometown, quickly tamed the blaze and saved the building.
Since the night of the fire, DiStefano’s sole aim has been to get the business reopen as soon as possible. “I want to get open, I want to be back,” he said.
The first call DiStefano made the day after the fire was to the mayor. “I thanked him and told him what a great job the Burbank Fire Department and Police Department did.”
DiStefano has been working closely with his insurance adjuster to expedite repairs. “In 33 years I never made a claim,” he said and added that his insurance company has been wonderful in helping him get back on his feet.
DiStefano said things are moving extremely fast. “My focus is to retool and get up and running.”
Along with miscellaneous equipment that will have to be replaced, the building will need extensive electrical work, a new ceiling, and a new furnace. DiStefano is working with a fire restoration company to preserve the autographed sports memorabilia that adorned the dining room walls and is cautiously optimistic the collectables can be saved.
DiStefano was hesitant to venture a guess on how long he thinks it will take to reopen but hopes to be back in business within a month. He said he is looking forward to “positive changes.”
DiStefano said there were misconceptions in the community last year when the business was put up for auction.
In addition to running The Dugout, DeStefano, an off-ice official for the National Hockey League, was coaching the Orland Park Vikings hockey club and giving private hockey lessons. He was looking to lighten his load and thought that selling the business and collecting rent might be a way to free up more time to spend with his family.
DiStefano said a friend in the real estate business convinced him he could get a better price at auction versus a traditional sale — but when people heard the news, many confused it for a distressed property auction.
DiStefano said he’s owned The Dugout outright for 26 years and business has been phenomenal. “We had a contract immediately but the deal fell apart at the last minute.”
After the contract fell through, DiStefano had a change of heart and decided to hold onto the business. “That’s my baby, it’s not for sale,” he said.
He said he regrets his decision to put The Dugout on the auction block and said it created erroneous negative perceptions. “I’ll never do it again,” DiStefano said.
The Dugout has built a loyal following of customers and has racked up a large number of glowing reviews since it first opened in 1984. Their pepper and egg sandwich was a favorite of legendary Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno. Last year the restaurant was inducted into the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame.
DiStefano said he’s been overwhelmed by an outpouring of public support and well wishes. “The day after the fire, people were stopping by and asking 'how can I help you?'”
DiStefano feels a deep connection to the community and the City of Burbank. He wrote in a recent Facebook post, “I’m so thankful for you all!!! I love our town!!! Thanks for the amazing support!!! We will rebuild and be better than ever!!!”
Plans for a grand reopening are already in the works. For DiStefano, that day can't come soon enough.