A plastic chair and a large bin up against the prep area behind the Rustic Grille burst into flames when a fire was lit inside the trash can in the wee hours of Monday morning and the fire burned right up to the eaves.
In front of the shopping center at 494 Main Street, Fire Marshal Bill Davin said the window for Frank's Barber Stylists, which is in the same building as Rustic Grille, was broken, though evidence leading investigators to believe there was attempted arson there too was not made public.
Heading south on Main Street, Matt & Louie's Barber Shop, run by Matt Ramadani and Louie Roci, both of whom used to work at Franks', was also hit. The window of the front door was broken and someone tried to light up the metal blinds.
A metal bin toward the roof behind the building had fire damage, as well as the back door, where Ramadani and Roci said someone piled cardboard and set it on fire. Luckily for the barber shop, the door was fire resistant and the business was open on Tuesday morning.
But the Rustic Grille could take months to open again and Anna Rexhepi, a hairdresser at Frank's, believes the shop she works at will be closed for another two weeks.
"It certainly looks like it was done by the same party," Davin said of the similar modus operandi at both locations.
The fire marshal said a $2,500 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist(s). Those with information should call the Connecticut Arson Hotline at 1-800-84ARSON.
Davin's office and the Monroe Police Department are investigating the fire with assistance from the Connecticut State Fire Marshal's Office. Davin said he called in the state agency after determining it was a suspicious fire, while at the scene on Monday morning.
"They just have more equipment and resources," Davin said.
At 3:33 a.m. Monday, Police Sgt. Jay Torreso a police officer noticed smoke behind the shopping center at 494 Main Street while on patrol. If not for Torreso, Davin said it would have only taken 20 more minutes before the Rustic Grille suffered a total loss.
The shopping center at 494 Main Street was still cordoned off with yellow tape on Tuesday morning.
John Kantzas, who owns Rustic Grille with his wife Sandy, was talking with patrons and friends inside the restaurant.
"This is my lifehood," Kantzas said. "This is my employees' lifehood."
Kantzas said he first got into the restaurant business after his family moved to America from Europe — working at diners when he was 11-and-a-half years-old.
"I've been working so many years, I don't know what to do with myself," Kantzas said. "My hobby is working for my customers."
Kantzas and his wife, Sandy, both said they have become close with patrons at their restaurant since it first opened five years ago. Kantzas recalled a man who comes up from Norwalk for Rustic Grille's eggs benedict, a Norwalk woman who loves the roast beef sandwich, as well as customers who make trips from North Haven and the Bronx.
The couple has been married for 32 years and lives in town. They have four grown children, including daughter, Marie, who works at Rustic Grille.
"I'm very tight with these people," Bob Cain a customer from Newtown said of the Kantzas family. "They're nicest people in the world. Their daughter was crying."
Cain had come to Rustic Grille to see if there was anything he could do to help John Kantzas to reopen.
"I can't believe anybody would do that to him," Cain said. "I want the ball rolling. I want this place up and running."
Cain said he and a group of friends meet there for breakfast and talk about everything from sports and local news to politics. But he comes for the food just as much as the conversation.
"The eggs are fresh and everything is homemade," Cain said. "The hollandaise sauce is homemade here."
Cain was not the only regular customer to walk up to John Kantzas and offer help Tuesday morning.
Tom Benedetto of Monroe befriended Kantzas a few years ago. Kantzas fondly recalled a story of when his staff was backed up one night and Benedetto walked into the kitchen and helped with the dishes.
"We got him an apron," Kantzas said with a laugh.
Another time, when Kantzas and his wife went away for a weekend to visit one of their daughters at college, Benedetto, who used to be in the restaurant business himself, oversaw the restaurant.
Mike Chervansky and Derek Currier of Creative Music, 701 Main Street, approached Kantzas.
"Hey John," Chervansky greeted him. "We're here to offer you any help we can. I need my steak and eggs."
Kantzas turned to Currier and said, "He comes in and gets the Big Daddy Roast Beef."
Currier said employees of Creative Music always go to Rustic Grille as a group at lunchtime.
Anna Rexhepi of Frank's also stopped to speak with John and Sandy Kantzas.
"I love him like a father," she said of John Kantzas. "He's a very nice guy. I love the entire family. I'm just devastated by what happened. I still can't believe it. I'm shocked."
Rexhepi worked at Frank's for 11 years and has known the Kantzas family for almost six. She said she has cut their two sons' hair.
John Kantzas said Rustic Grille has sponsored Little League and softball teams and been active in charities such as Swim Across the Sound, Relay for Life and Sprint for Monroe.
A sign inside the restaurant says: "You enter as strangers. You leave as friends." And Kantzas said they have made a lot of friends.
The couple said the support of customers expressed in e-mails, on Monroe Patch and on Facebook is keeping them going. Sandy showed children's drawings on the dining room wall and a scarf from the Women's World Cup that a customer gave them.
"It's not just that we serve eggs and hamburgers," John said, before Sandy added, "We build relationships."
Matt & Louie's
Matt & Louie's Barber Shop is set far back from the road at 258 Main Street in Stepney Plaza. On Tuesday morning, Louie Roci cut a man's hair in front of one mirror, while Matt Ramadani talked to someone on the phone about the arson attempt on their business.
"This was really surprising for us," Ramadani said of the early morning call they received from police on Monday, which is their day off.
Ramadani showed the burn marks on the metal blinds on the front entrance and the charred back door, which is fire-proof. He also showed the metal bin just below the roof line in back of the building, which had burn marks on it.
When asked what he thought of the arson at the other shopping center, Ramadani said, "That is horrible too. We thought there was a fire at the restaurant because of the cooking. It's hard to figure," he added over why someone would do such a thing.