JACKSON — On Cinco de Mayo in 1985, Ken Crotwell opened the Iron Horse Grill in downtown Jackson as restaurant manager for its owners, the McWilliams. By the time he bought the restaurant in June 1995, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“As a little boy, we used to ride the Amtrak train from Baton Rouge to visit relatives in Gluckstadt and loved to stop in downtown Jackson,” Crotwell said. “I loved the area, and the old smokehouse building. Little did I know that I would end up having a restaurant there later on in life.”
The historic building he purchased for $1 million was constructed in two sections — one was completed in 1906 and the other in 1930. Remodeled only once, for $62,000 by the McWilliams, the tall brick building, considered fireproof, was located near the train station and was originally a smokehouse and test kitchen for Armour Meats.
Crotwell overcame many obstacles to run the award-winning restaurant, including the age-old downtown problem: lack of parking. But nothing prepared him for two devastating fires that crippled his business. Last March, a kitchen fire closed the Iron Horse Grill for several months, leaving a staff of 130 employees that served 1,000 customers daily temporarily out of work. After extensive remodeling and costly code upgrades, which insurance did not cover, the restaurant reopened 108 days later, on July 6, only to be shut down by an even more devastating fire, 108 days after that, on Oct. 31. And, 108 days later, his manager resigned and moved back to Louisiana. “I figure I have until June 3, which is 108 days after that, to live,” he said, with a halfhearted chuckle.
“The crazy thing was that, when I arrived at the restaurant Halloween morning to look at the damage, I was held at the building because it was thought I burned the thing down,” he said. “I told them, ‘staying here isn’t an option. I’m not leaving anyway.’ The building was open, and I thought there might be something left. I spent about 36 hours there, but on Nov. 1, I was called away because my wife and I had our fourth child. It was a bizarre chain of events. The doctor asked if we’d had any trauma in our life and my wife hit him with the bedpan.”
After the first fire, only $25,000 was allowed in code upgrade for replacement costs, Crotwell said.
“We spent close to a million dollars after the first fire,” he said. “Insurance only paid $438,000. If I had the $600,000 or so money back to start after the second fire, I could get started again.”
Even though at least 22 break-ins have occurred since the second fire, and “anything that wasn’t burned was stolen,” Crotwell plans to reopen the Iron Horse Grill in the same location, even though a date has not yet been determined, he said.
“We considered other locations, from Clinton to Gluckstadt, from the Mississippi River to Byram, but downtown is where we want to be,” he said. “We looked at other downtown locations because it would be cheaper from an economic standpoint, but we decided to rebuild in the same spot. We may rename a dining room ‘The Phoenix’ or something.”
Crotwell has worked with wood brokers from across the U.S. to locate the same design and construction of wood, he said.
“We’ve found an old building in Pennsylvania with the same cuts of wood,” he said. “It will be occupied until the end of July, but then that wood will be shipped to Mississippi, and we’ll hopefully begin reconstructing the Iron Horse.”
About 90% of the 350 to 500 lunches that were served daily at the Iron Horse Grill were to the downtown business crowd, said Crotwell.
“We often had presentations going on during lunch in the private party rooms,” said Crotwell. “We also saw a lot of people who had been in meetings all morning that came in to grab a quick bite to eat.”
Many changes had been planned after the restaurant reopened the first time, including a junior menu with smaller proportions for ages six to 12, and the Iron Horse Express, which would have provided counter service on the first level, with a menu consisting of sandwiches, salads and lighter fare, he said.
“The junior menu is in a pile of ashes in the offices,” he said. “It was ready to be rolled out, attached to etch-a-sketches. But we’ll reopen with the same plans.”
In the meantime, since the insurance claim hasn’t been settled, Crotwell is working with Thomas Couch at Red, Hot & Blue in Jackson and sometimes caters some of Iron Horse Grill’s specialties on the side.
“The main thing that we’re fighting is insurance,” he said. “We do not feel they have handled the claim properly, in a timely and complete manner. Whenever this part of my life is over, I promise I’ll fight for insurance reform in this state. Whenever insurance demands of you to pay your premium on a timely basis, then they should also pay on a prompt basis. They have not had to act with the same sense of urgency as they expect from others. Nobody ever needs to think it won’t happen to them because it can.”
Jimmy McNair of Mississippi Claim Service, the local representative for New Orleans-based United Fire & Casualty, the insurance policy holder for the Iron Horse Grill, declined comment.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.