Augie’s cooking again for staff
Customers miss restaurant after devastating fire
BALLSTON SPA Sara Miller figured her tips from her last shift at Augie’s Restaurant went up in smoke.
The part-time waitress clocked out on a Saturday evening, leaving about $130 at the restaurant and expecting to pick it up on her next shift. But the money she left locked in a cash register ended up in a pile of charred debris after the eatery was toppled by a pre-dawn morning fire earlier this month.
“I thought they were gone,” she said Monday. “But [owner Augie Vitiello] lost his whole restaurant, so I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Of course, she didn’t need to. In the day that followed the fire, Vitiello sifted through the wreckage to find the cash register and Miller’s money locked safely in a drawer with tips from three other waitresses.
“It smelled smoky — definitely smoky,” she said. “Somehow it didn’t burn.”
Miller was back working for Augie’s on Monday, only at a less familiar location. For two nights, Augie’s has found a home away from home at the Ballston Spa Elks Lodge, which donated kitchen space for Vitiello to cook several of his popular dishes in order to raise money for his out-of-work staff.
Flames were seen shooting from the basement of the restaurant shortly before 4:30 a.m. Aug. 5. Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, but the blaze had already compromised the structure’s first floor and caused it to collapse in places.
Though an exact cause hasn’t been identified, the fire appeared to spread from an electrical console in the basement. A village code enforcer condemned the building shortly after the flames were doused and the structure was toppled by an excavator by early afternoon.
All told, there are 10 full-time workers and about 20 part-timers left without a job until the restaurant can rebuild. In addition to getting space donated by the lodge, Augie’s also received food donations from the restaurant’s suppliers, meaning all the proceeds could go toward helping staffers.
“Every penny is going to the staff,” said manager Tory Cameron.
Cameron said the benefit also gave the restaurant’s workers a chance to be back on the job, even if it’s only for a couple days. Money aside, he said the workers miss being at the restaurant, which some regard as an extended surrogate family.
“We’d rather be at work,” he said.
And it’s a sentiment shared by Augie’s loyal customers. Word of the benefit spread quickly enough that the restaurant had no problem selling out 150 family-style meals on Monday — each enough to feed four people.
Heather Tuthill of Saratoga Springs ordered three of the meals Monday and was already booking another two for today. After coming to the restaurant regularly for nearly a decade, she felt compelled to do something to help out the staff.
“It was pretty heart-breaking,” she said of the fire. “We’re really looking forward to him rebuilding.”
Debbie and Hal Gray of Burnt Hills are equally anxious for Augie’s to reopen. The couple has dined at the restaurant about twice a week ever since it opened nine years ago — Debbie Gray even had a menu item named in her honor.
“These people are like family to us,” she said while picking up her dinner. “We’re just sad and we want to help out as much as we can.”
The benefit even drew back some of Augie’s departed staffers. Former bartender Marc Grace logged his first shift at Augie’s since 2010 to help out the people he considers his extended family.
“Even though I’ve moved on, I’m still connected to it,” he said.
Like many others, Grace had trouble seeing the restaurant literally reduced to a hole in the ground. He recalled the sports memorabilia on the walls — among the collection was a 1920s New York Times article about the home run race between Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and a jersey worn by Mickey Mantle.
“Little things I could stare at day after day and you think, wow, I’m never going to see them again,” he lamented.
But there’s a light at the end of the dark tunnel for Augie’s staff and its loyal customers. Vitiello is close to finding a temporary location to set up his restaurant until a new one can be designed.
Though the restaurateur isn’t ready to announce the location, he assured that it would be within close proximity of his old place. He’s expecting to make an announcement later this week.
“Hopefully we’ll be getting back to work soon,” he said.