Dave Demma, Dean Hery, and Eddie Gallego pose outside the Breaux Mart store in Metairie, LA, where a mechanical refrigeration system was restored to working order in only three days following an arson fire.
METAIRIE, LA — When an arson fire destroyed the mechanical room of a 25,000-sq-ft supermarket here, the owner had a simple request of the local refrigeration wholesaler and tech people: “Get my store up and running again as soon as possible.”

The result was either a minor miracle or an example of industry suppliers and a wholesaler pulling together — or a combination of both.

Police in a patrol car discovered the fire in the early morning hours on a Wednesday before the Breaux Mart was scheduled to open. Firefighters arrived to combat the blaze by dawn’s first light. Shortly after that, Eddie Gallego of wholesaler Baker Distributing and representatives of rack manufacturer Hussmann were on the scene. By Saturday morning, the store reopened.

But such a quick turnaround wasn’t easy.

The condensing units to the right are atop the mechanical room that was gutted by a fire.
“The fire was started in a stack of cardboard outside the mechanical room,” said Hussmann’s Dean Hery, who was one of the first industry representatives on the scene. “It actually went through the wall into the compressor room.” Because of the quick action by police and fire officials and because the mechanical room was attached to the supermarket and not in a backroom, the fire did not spread to the store proper.

To fully assess the damage, Hery said, “We decided to pull everything out and evaluate the situation.” While Breaux Mart employees tried to salvage as much refrigerated and frozen food as possible by moving it to the small chain’s other two stores in the area, Hussmann technicians removed all the mechanical refrigeration equipment. They needed the assistance of a crane for the rooftop condensing units. Everything was taken to a Hussmann facility in nearby New Orleans.

About the only equipment that could be salvaged was the frame of the rack. Said Hery, “We stripped everything right down to the frame. We knew that when you order a new parallel rack system, it could take six to eight weeks. So we decided to keep the frame and rebuild the whole thing.”

Representatives from the local wholesaler, Baker Distributing, including manager Gary Dubuc, had been on the scene from the start. They were called in to help draw up a parts list, determine what could be located at Baker’s 90 locations in the Southeast, and find out what needed to be ordered from component manufacturers.

By Thursday, the list was complete and the orders went out. The need to be back on-line as soon as possible caused the industry folks to seek out exact matches for the destroyed equipment. That included compressors that had been originally designed for R-502 and retrofitted to R-408A. The search spread through the South. Dave Demma, of Sporlan’s Houston, TX, office, was asked to locate and help in the sizing of valves.

The next day, the components started to arrive, and Hussmann technicians were at the store to begin the rebuilding process. The crew worked all of Friday and into the early hours of Saturday morning. Electricians were also on the scene doing the rewiring (under the watchful eye of city inspectors).

The equipment was started up early Saturday morning. “There were no problems,” said Hery. The supermarket opened at its customary 7 a.m., having lost only three days of business, after a project that even the most wide-eyed optimist thought would take a week or more.

Said Baker’s Gallego, “We are all customer-service focused. We did what we had to do, to get this thing running. It was a team effort.”

There has been fine-tuning since, but it resulted in no days lost and no downtime. When the store was visited for this story several months after the fire, there was no external evidence of the incident. And the mechanical room, despite a few signs of smoke damage, was churning out adequate refrigeration, even as ambient temperatures and humidities rose.

Publication date: 03/04/2002