Victor Minichiello stood behind yellow caution tape, peering between two cleanup trucks toward the charred rubble of his popular Italian restaurant, Sal’s by Victor.
When the wind shifts a smoky smell is carried on the air, past the other stores in the strip mall that are reopening one by one, past crews of men clearing out blackened debris, past a large wooden board set up by a local Boy Scout troop that has been signed over and over by supporters of Sal’s.
Sal’s by Victor was destroyed by a fire Tuesday morning, a blaze so intense 75 firefighters from as far away as Newport News were called in to help put it out.
Victor, as he is widely known to his Williamsburg friends, has barely slept since then.
“I’m drained, man. I’m out of energy, you know what I mean? I don’t sleep — I can’t sleep. I come here, I think the place is still here, you know? You know you go to the same place for so many years, it’s like, I’m here, I have nothing to do here,” he said Friday. “I’m like somebody who loses a son or a significant other, you are at the grave everyday, looking around and you can do nothing, you’re just there, you know?”
Since Tuesday, Victor has been spending most of his time in the Williamsburg Shopping Center on Richmond Road, where his restaurant used to be. He walks around outside, burning through cigarette after cigarette, occasionally stopping in the nearby Books-A-Million, where the café has become a quasi-base of operation for Victor and other Sal’s employees coordinating the recovery effort.
On Friday, he was on and off the phone with insurance agents. Sal’s, he said, was underinsured, and he seems concerned about finding the finances to rebuild. But rebuild he will.
“It’s like a tragedy. I lose a part of me but we’re going to go back and fix it up and we have so many customers, William and Mary students, tourists, local people, everybody,” he said. “We’re going to be in service again soon. I’m not going to give up anything.”
Despite his optimism at eventually reopening — he tells each person he sees that he expects to see them at opening night — the stress of losing his life’s work has clearly taken a toll on his short-term cheerfulness.
“The only thing I can see in front of me is like a black wall,” he said.
But there to cheer him up are his myriad fans, who since the fire have been nearly omnipresent to console Victor and encourage him to reopen. Victor can barely walk outside before a customer approaches him. On Friday, as he stood by the Boy Scout sign, a man emerged from Bloom with a bag and stopped to say hello to Victor.
“I’m really sorry, man, that’s awful,” the man said, “It’ll all come around.” Like most people, he asks Victor about the fire’s cause. Victor patiently explains that investigators are still having difficulty entering the former restaurant and have yet to determine what could have set off the fire at around 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Victor enjoys a strong connection with the community. It’s as if he has a story about everyone in Williamsburg. He jokes with this man, for example, that the last time they saw each other was when they almost ended up in a fender-bender.
The trim Italian developed such relationships because he and his restaurant have been Williamsburg icons for decades. Victor came from Italy after working as a professional chef across Europe, finding employment at a restaurant then just known as Sal’s. Nineteen years ago, though, he bought the place from its namesake owners.
“I decided that Williamsburg is a great place to live. And I said, ‘I’m going to create my foundation here. I’m going to create my family here. A good place to raise a family,’” he said. “I’ve been here for so many years it’s like this place is an institution, not just a restaurant. And it was a house for so many people from the beginning, for so many customers, so many friends and my people working for me, and me and my family.”
Victor’s determination to make his restaurant a welcoming place was a priority, one that helped him become to popular in the community.
“My thing was one simple thing: I wanted my customers to feel like they come to my house, not to my restaurant,” Victor said. “It’s like a guest when you invite over for a cookout, a barbecue. I want them to feel safe when they come to me. That was my goal.”
And despite losing his restaurant, fore in Victor’s mind is getting help for his 48 now-unemployed staff. He encourages anyone wishing to help the staff to donate to the Sal’s by Victor Fire Fund at Chesapeake Bank, all of which goes to supporting the employees.
“I don’t know about stronger, but we’re going to be back. That’s what we hope,” he said. “I can’t give up. I’m not going to give up.”