Hammond favorites plan to reopen after downtown fire

On Apr. 10 at approximately 2 p.m., a fire began that claimed both Superking Seafood and Lee’s Drive In. Both restaurants are notable Hammond favorites. Lee’s offers the classic diner experience with the chrome walls, while Superking created Cajun-style boiled seafood, even working with the university and bringing food on campus during football season.

Before consuming both establishments, the fire’s creation was in the walls of Superking. When the building added the boiling area fifteen years ago, it met fire safety codes at the time by being ventilated and having walls made with metal lining. The permanent boiling pots they used are placed approximately five feet away from the walls; however, the lining of the building was wood. In buildings today, plywood or drywall would be used to conform to today’s safety codes. 

According to Hammond Fire Department Chief John Thomas, though it was never directly in contact with the fires, after years of being subjected to the heat of the boiling pots, the wood aged and caught fire. 

“It was not intentional,” said Thomas. “They weren’t doing anything wrong; it just happens like that, and that is why codes are changed over the years. Building codes are in effect when the building is built. You can’t go back and make people change things with new codes. Now, if you rebuild, you can go to today’s codes.” 

When the wood caught fire, a Superking chef was cooking and smelled the smoke. When he went outside and saw the fire, he ran to get a fire extinguisher, but by then, the fire had grown too large so the fire department was called.

“It was definitely unintentional; it wasn’t from them not watching the pots,” said Thomas. “The moon aligned, wrong place, wrong time. They didn’t do anything, everything was to code. It wasn’t some Mickey Mouse setup. It was a good setup that they had.”

Meanwhile in Lee’s, an employee had gone up to co-owner Russell Tallo Jr. telling him they smelled smoke. When Russell Tallo Jr. went out the front door, he saw the blaze coming up from on top of a fence that was level with the roof of Lee’s and ran back inside to get everyone out the building. 

“The policeman I had been eating with was already moving people out,” said Russell Tallo Jr. “They were walking, and when I told them the building was going to catch fire, they went faster and I told someone to call 911.”

Then, Russell Tallo Jr. had his employees go out the building and that was when the fire department arrived.

Thomas was impressed by how quickly both businesses were able to evacuate the buildings and get people to safety.

Though Lee’s was easy to put out, Superking was not so easily extinguished. Over the years, the restaurant had remodeled and had several roofs. The fire was harder to reach and the firefighters were forced to work from the top on downward to extinguish the flames.

Lee’s suffered fire damage in the office and storage area, as well as water and smoke damage throughout the entire building. All ceiling tiles will have to be replaced.

“It’s bad, but it could be a lot worse,” said Paul Davis Restoration, Inc. General Manager Steve Owens. “It’s significant. There’s a moderate amount of damage to the interior and a lot of equipment has to be cleaned. The biggest part is getting everything cleaned and getting everything put back together.”

Lee’s has been a part of Hammond since 1963 when it was first opened under the name of Ganus’s. It was not until several years later it changed to the well-known Lee’s Drive In, not just in name, but also in appearance and menu as well.

Co-owner Sam Tallo bought the restaurant in 1996 and added the chrome lights to it, giving it the classic diner look that customers enjoy. Then in 2007 he was joined by his brother Russell Tallo Sr. and his son Russell Tallo Jr.

“Basically it went from a small hamburger place to a diner in 1996,” said Russell Tallo Sr. “Then, we brought it up to one more level in 2007 and we added more breakfast. We kept the same menu, just added food to it.”

Though there has been no re-opening date for either restaurant, the owners are all hoping to open again.

“Appraisals haven’t come in yet so we don’t know what all the damage is, but we’re trying to reopen as fast as possible,” said Sam Tallo.

Though they are not open, Lee’s owners are trying to find ways that they could fill up their workers’ time sheets. On Friday, Apr. 15, student workers had showed up to help with the restoration of the building.

According to Thomas, neither Superking Seafood or Lee’s Drive In is going anywhere. From a business standpoint, Thomas hopes the community will respect the time it takes for them to get the businesses back. 

“Both places knew they had a home here in Hammond,” said Thomas. “Unfortunately, the buildings were lost, but that can be rebuilt. No owners, employees, customers or firefighters got hurt. That’s the goal. Everyone got to go home at the end.”