GREENFIELD — Debbie Grass and a handful of other Eastern Hancock teachers had standing plans for Friday night: a book club meeting over dinner at their favorite restaurant, El Rodeo.
But instead of discussing their most recent read over chips and salsa, half a dozen EH high school and middle school teachers donned sandwich boards and stood in front of the charred remains of what was their regular meeting spot for the last several years.
The popular Mexican restaurant was destroyed in a fire Monday evening
“We used to eat here every couple of weeks,” explained Grass, a high school business teacher. “We’re really going to miss them.”
Grass said she and the other book club members were talking about the fire this week and wanted to do something to help. So their normal meeting plans were scrapped. The teachers made doubled-sided sandwich boards, reading “Please Donate” on one side and “Help El Rodeo Employees” on the other. For several hours Friday evening they stood in front of El Rodeo’s remains on Ind. 9 and collected cash donations from motorists driving by.
After reading about the drive in the paper, Kevin Stephens made plans to pass by when he knew the teachers would be out collecting.
“We eat here occasionally,” he explained. “I just wanted to stop by and make a donation.”
In the first half an hour, at least a dozen cars had stopped to contribute.
“You’d always like to be able to do more, but we’ve gotten a lot of stops so far,” said Pam Blakely, EH media assistant. “I love this restaurant. We’ve got to figure out a way to get it back.”
El Rodeo’s owners and managers have said they would like to rebuild, but will have to wait on insurance paperwork and results from an investigation into the cause of the blaze before any final decisions can be made.
Greenfield Fire Chief James Roberts said insurance adjusters will begin working with fire investigators on Monday to determine where and how the fire started.
In the meantime, El Rodeo management is working to find the 16 Greenfield employees jobs at other locations within the chain.
Manager Jacinto Leon said all but a handful of the employees have been placed in other El Rodeo restaurants around Indianapolis, but since most live in Greenfield they will be driving much farther. The donations collected Friday, and those being collected in several other community drives, will be distributed to employees to help cover additional expenses and lost wages, he said.
“People have been very, very nice,” said Leon, who has already distributed some of the donations collected earlier this week to his former employees.
Onlookers, including employees and patrons, watched in disbelief Monday night as fire engulfed El Rodeo. Leon said eight or nine employees were working at the time, and fewer than 20 customers were inside. Accounts from those in the restaurant said the fire seemed to start near the ceiling. When fire crews arrived on the scene around 6 p.m., flames were already licking through the roof. It took five departments two hours to get the blaze under control and about six to stamp out the final hot spots.
By Tuesday morning, all that was left was a pile of barely recognizable, charred rubble contained by the two white brick walls left standing.
Aside from yesterday’s Eastern Hancock drive, the devastation prompted several other community collection drives. Donations of cash and gift cards will be accepted for the next two weeks at Hancock Regional Hospital, Calvary Baptist Church and Something New at Tiffany’s hair salon.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has been very sympathetic to what happened,” said Beth Burkhardt, a frequent patron at El Rodeo who helped start the drive at Calvary Baptist. On Friday afternoon, about $140 had been contributed so far.
“It’s just starting,” said Burkhardt, “but I know a lot of people are wanting to help any way they can.”