Roy de la Garza was already having a bad month before a fire destroyed his restaurant: His partner at The Broken Spoke Cafe, Catherine Duwez, had left unexpectedly to start a rival Belgian restaurant a few months prior, and business was down.
"Cathy kind of threw us for a loop when she went over to Cafe Brussels," de la Garza said over the phone yesterday afternoon, sounding resigned but remarkably amiable about the whole thing. "She left saying that she had no intention of opening another place."
"We always had a real small customer base in the summertime, so we'd always just squeeze by in the summertime. When she opened Cafe Brussels it cut our customer base in half."
And after a fire at a neighboring duplex blazed out of control this past Monday afternoon -- smoke filling the attic space of The Broken Spoke Cafe and flames damaging the rafters so badly that the roof caved in -- that customer base has been cut down to nothing. It was so massive a fire that Washington Avenue was shut down for blocks in either direction and required "75 firefighters" with "29 units" to get the flames under control, according to the Houston Fire Department.
At the time of the fire, de la Garza says, he and his new partner -- Pierre Guitard -- were still negotiating with property owner Ralph Thomas over the rent.
"I guess we're going in a completely different direction now," de la Garza stated plainly.
As to what caused the blaze, the HFD hasn't yet issued a statement. But de la Garza is fairly certain that a "transient man" living in the abandoned duplex next door is responsible, perhaps inadvertently.
"We haven't found him yet to ask him, though," de la Garza admitted. However, he said: "There were no services turned on at that house -- no electricity, no water, no power -- so it had to have been a person that started the fire."
The duplex itself is a charred, vaguely house-shaped pile of rubble a few days after the fire. The Broken Spoke is intact, but the limited visible damage from the street belies the serious issues inside. With much of the ceiling partially collapsed, de la Garza says, "the entire roof would have to be rebuilt -- and it's already an old building to begin with."
De la Garza has no doubts that Thomas, the property owner, will rebuild, however. "Ralph Thomas tends to hang on to everything, so my guess is that he's going to try and find a way to make it work."
For his part, de la Garza and new partner Guitard are focusing on a new direction entirely -- a direction that was already in the works before the fire.
"We were gonna start a French steakhouse," he says. "Something like more of a lounge-type atmosphere. Pierre is from France originally, and we knew that two Belgian restaurants so close to each other would never work." But after the fire, those plans are on hold indefinitely while the two regroup and salvage as much equipment as possible from the fire-wrecked building.
In the meantime, de la Garza is quite content to keep his day job as principal of Milby High School. His tone of voice changes when he talks about the job, one he says he was working toward for years when he accepted the position in June 2011.
"It's just an absolute blast," de la Garza says, "so I'm going to concentrate on that for a while." It's not difficult to imagine him grinning broadly as he talks about Milby, for as much as he enjoyed his time at The Broken Spoke. It's an enthusiasm that translates easily across the phone lines.
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"I love the [restaurant] business, so I wouldn't mind owning another restaurant or bar if the opportunity presented itself -- but right now I don't want to do anything that takes time away from the school."