Out of the Ashes
“No more tears,” says 41-year-old Mike Selinger on the 12th day since flames ravaged his family restaurant, The Old Stein Inn in Mayo.
The predawn fire on the last day of 2010 shook his world, stole his livelihood and made him find words to explain to his parents what happened to the restaurant they founded 28 and left in his hands 15 years ago.
Day by day, it’s getting better. He has reassured his German-born parents, Karl and Ursula Selinger, who now live in Mexico. The kids — three blond boys all under three and a half years old — have food on the table. Wife Beth has returned to work as a nurse at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Insurance looks like it will pay to rebuild The Old Stein and the family’s bills until the restaurant reopens — as soon as August, Selinger hopes.
Now, he says, “I am tired of seeing people who break down and cry. My family is over it. The crying is done. We’re going to move on, going to rebuild, hopefully.”
As he speaks, his eyes well up with tears. “It was a devastating experience,” he says.
The Lingering Pain
The emotion is still there, lingering like the charred smell Selinger can’t wait to get rid of. Will he ever see a bonfire, one of his favorite things, with pleasure again, he wonders. Now, he fears the sight of a fire will recall “vivid things that morning that will never go away.”
Awakening at 6:08am December 31 to a call from a guy he’d been waiting to hear from about routine maintenance of The Old Stein parking lot … hearing the word fire … pulling on his clothes to discover, not 50 yards from his family home, that parking lot full of fire trucks, their sirens off so the firefighters had clear communication … the flames … the smoke … the water … the smell … the total loss of all the food and drink stocked up for New Year’s Eve …
Like the smell and the emotion, the story keeps coming back. He can’t keep from telling it.
But from Day One, he has planned to rebuild. “I never knew I had a choice,” he says. “I don’t know what else I’m going to do.”
And now he can see a silver lining.
Four days into the investigation of what started the blaze, Selinger was “very happy.”
Restaurant fires, he explains, spark suspicions.
“When you hear about one burning down, you always wonder if it was intentionally started,” he says.
Now “they think they know the cause,” he reports. An old wire in the ceiling under his second-floor office, which was “pretty much the hardest hit.”
That’s “one less thing we to have to worry about,” Selinger says.
Another silver lining is the goodwill of his far-flung community of supporters.
“The first three days were an out-of-body experience,” he reports. With the boys with their grandparents on the Eastern Shore, “the thing that kept us going was well wishes from everyone possible. Emails, Facebook, letters, people who drove over. It was just overwhelming how many people sent regards.”
In his unwonted leisure, Selinger reflects on what he and his parents before him have made. A business graduate of Central Florida University who has lived and worked the restaurant life since he was 13, he understands customer appeal. But now that appeal is flooring him.
“In such a corporate world, we’re not the average chain the same as any other across the country. We’re a throwback. A gathering place for family and friends, where they come for anniversaries, family birthdays, graduations, special occasions for years and years. We’re an extension of their family room. That’s what I’ve been told, and it’s just overwhelming,” he says.
The day after the fire, Selinger wanted nothing but to stay in bed. Beth urged him out, for friends had already arrived to help clean up the mess.
Selinger called for a Red Wagon trash container. Owner Tim O’Brien delivered within two hours. Volunteers started on the refrigerators, throwing out all the ruined food.
For two weekends, people hauled debris out of the restaurant. In that time, they filled the 30-cubic-yard open-top container with debris. It has since been hauled away.
So, says Selinger, “we’ve made huge steps.”
Looking to the Future
With the mess and debris behind him, Selinger can now focus on rebuilding. The money to pay for it seems assured by insurance.
“You go to a restaurant, you pay for dinner, you expect to get dinner,” Selinger says. “We’ve paid 28 years for insurance and never had a claim. Now they’re all saying, you’re going to get what you’re supposed to get when you buy insurance.
“We’re in pretty good shape.”
His next step is finding an architect. As we speak, he jiggles his cell phone in his hand, waiting for a call.
Selinger has dreams of the new Old Stein.
“The structure is mainly intact. We don’t think we have to do too much to the foundation,” he says. “I’m really excited about redoing all our finishes.”
The new Old Stein is “in my head,” he says. “I see it. Changes I wanted to make that weren’t an option now are.”
Inside the burned-out shell of Selinger’s family business, his dreams transform the black-charred ruins.
“This roof,” he says, pointing to a ceiling exposed by the fire. “I’m thinking we can cathedral this and tie up to the level above with an open ceiling with open windows.”
He envisions “a rustic modern look, real clean, exposed reclaimed wood, all as green as possible.”
At the same time, he wants to be careful to preserve the “draw” that has kept people coming — and about which they wax so eloquent in their eulogies.
“Some folks love the old Gasthaus feeling, and we hope we can keep that feeling,” he said. “That said, we see a lot of potential to reorganize the restaurant to make it more functional.”
Selinger has interviewed “a bunch of contractors.” Now that’s “on the back burner” as he waits for a call from the engineer and the architect he hopes will remodel The Old Stein.
So far, Selinger says, “Everybody has been very helpful. The fire department. The insurance people.”
About Anne Arundel County, he’s not so sure.
“The county has said they’re going to expedite any review process for us. But it’s daunting. That’s why I need someone who speaks the language of the county.”
So he’s eager for the phone to ring.
“We’re going to rebuild,” he says. “If Anne Arundel County will let us.”
The New Old Stein Inn
May is his dream date. About it, he knows he’s dreaming.
“Realistically, August,” he says.
Certainly before October. He’s terrified of what will happen if reopening is postponed until October, when Oktoberfest historically has meant waits of two to three hours for dinner.
“If we open in October, with the amount of people coming anyway, if we’re closed all this time and open then, it will be crazy,” he says.
Already people are telling him how they’re craving the wurst and cheese platter, the crab-cheese soup, the apple-Bavarian cheesecake, this or that beer.
“And we’ve only been closed a week. After eight months, they’ll be knocking down our door.”