Thanksgiving fire takes out Sambets
Save your jokes about fiery foods and smoked turkeys.
The Thanksgiving fire at Sambets Cajun Deli and Fiery Foods Store pretty much wiped out what had become owner Catherine Slocombe's life.
"Sambets wasn't just a restaurant," Slocombe said of the modest hot-sauce shop and Cajun cafe in North Austin, "It was a place where people came for comfort and community. When Katrina hit in 2005, that was one of the craziest, busiest days I can remember." The usually noisy restaurant was "totally silent," she said, save for the muffled sobs of regulars who either had family along the Gulf or had lived there themselves. "They came in for comfort. And that's what we served."
"Some people like to Cajun-ize the name: Sammm-bayyyyy!" Slocombe laughs. "But no. It's Sam-BETS. The original owners were Sam and Betty."
Slocombe and her husband Doug loved to entertain and cook for friends. In 1997, Doug became interested in the little Cajun grocery for sale on Spicewood Springs Road. Both he and Catherine entered Central Market's annual gumbo contest. "Out of 200 chefs," she recalls, "We each took first place. It was the first time either of us had made gumbo." In 1998, they got their restaurant permit, and on Fat Tuesday that year, they began serving food. Fat Tuesdays, Mardi Gras, and Cajun-fried turkeys became traditions for the Texas family. The Slocombes raised their kids at the shop amid customers who became like family, enjoying dinner among the rows and rows of rustic picnic tables nestled between walls of hot sauce and Cajun spices.
Sambets had become known and loved as the place for holiday vittles, especially its Cajun-injected, deep-fried turkeys. This year, the veteran crew was booked to cook 250 Thanksgiving birds. "We do about 15 at a time in this big aluminum vat. We had a little building out back where we fried the turkeys.
"On Tuesday, we checked all of our lines, all of our tanks, all of our fittings. Everything was fine," she said. By close of business Wednesday, they'd filled almost half of their orders. "It went so smoothly," she said. The crew was up the next day at 5:30am, Slocombe said, wistfully recalling the energy that morning. It was "festive and fun," she said. Customers had been offered time slots on the hour to come get their orders. The first orders of birds, giblet gravy, dirty rice, and sweet-potato casserole were ready for the first pickups at 9am. "My head cook, Chevis, was in the back frying. Everything was on schedule; it was flawless."
"We were on our 12pm pickups, about 50 turkeys into our day," Slocombe said, when suddenly, "there was this big kaboom." Employees herded everyone out front to safety. Once outside, they heard two more explosions; the fire department was there within three minutes. Customers who came to pick up turkeys were shocked to learn of the fire. Amazingly, some wanted to know if they could "just go in and get their bird."
"We just stood in the parking lot watching the flames shooting up about 20 feet above the building," Slocombe said. "The fire department doesn't know what happened. I'm so grateful everyone was OK."
Any damage estimates released so far by other media outlets, said Slocombe, are "pure conjecture." The fallout is still being assessed. Sambets lost its entire back building, two vehicles parked in the back, and most everything along the back wall, she said. Other businesses in the mall were affected, as well. Neighbor Ann's Kitchen Cakes had already planned an expansion into a larger space in the complex; it has since reopened.
Slocombe's community at Gateway Church has been there since the smoke first cleared. "My pastor calls every day to check in," she says. And a Yelp conversation group called "Fire at Sambet" began shortly after the tragedy (www.yelp.com/topic/austin-fire-at-sambet) with concerned fans and foodies brainstorming ideas for support once the cafe gets back on its feet.
"I'm down but not out," said Slocombe. "There are a lot of loose ends to tie up to figure out what's next, but we are coming back, somehow. I'm just so sorry for the other businesses affected and for the customers I disappointed on Thanksgiving.
"I hope folks who got a turkey enjoyed their very last Sambets fried turkey, because no matter what I do going forward," Slocombe laughs ironically, "I am never frying another turkey!"
Owner Catherine Slocombe is collecting email addresses from folks interested in the restaurant's progress. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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