Kitchen gutted by fire, 29 Diner now bolstered by community support

The tables have been turned at Fairfax, Virginia’s 29 Diner after a fire gutted the kitchen in the historic landmark that has stood on Fairfax Boulevard since 1947.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a fire broke out in a storage room adjacent to the kitchen that held chemicals used for cooking and cleaning.

“The fire broke out in that wet room, causing a chemical reaction and chemical fire,” owner John K. Wood told WTOP. “The 29 Diner as a business is closed” until further notice, said Wood. “Our community outreach is still alive.”

Since taking over the diner in 2014, Wood said it has focused on “community first” efforts, including delivering meals to health care workers responding to the pandemic’s initial wave.

A free pantry inside the diner has made food available to anyone in need.

Based on customer donations, “We bring a barbecue buffet into the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and military hospitals, letting them know this is courtesy of the community because they love you and appreciate our freedoms.”

Wood said he’s moved that “the tables have been turned” in his business’ own time of need.

“The principal at (W.T. Woodson High School) said ‘Hey, the kids are out on Thanksgiving break. Do you need our kitchen? We can rally around you, and make it work for you,'” Wood said.

Wood said the community support was immediate: “The Salvation Army had a food truck there at 10 o’clock the next morning, because they weren’t going to let us fail,” in the diner’s determination to help food insecure families.

“It has ovens, flat top grills, ranges, refrigeration,” Wood said. “It has everything as a fully outfitted kitchen, just like ours in the 29 Diner — we can do all our preparations as we would do in our restaurant.”

Wood said the generosity has allowed the diner to continue its outreach.

“We never missed a turkey delivery, even though our restaurant burned down,” Wood said.

A GoFundMe page has been established by community members to rebuild the kitchen, and sustain employees. As of Monday morning, the page had raised over $40,000 of its $100,000 goal.

“Our restaurant staff and our kitchen staff all lost their livelihoods, right before Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Wood. “Those employees are volunteering to continue to feed the community through Christmas and the end of the year.”

Wood estimates it will take four to six months to rebuild and reopen. But his staff’s dedication to serve the community will continue during the process.

“If you need toys, if you need nonperishable food, if you need holiday meals, please come see our volunteers here at the closed 29 Diner,” he said.

Despite the financial hardship, Wood said he felt confident he’d be able to continue providing help for those who need it: “We’re not looking at it as a fire,” he said. “We are looking at it that the Lord decided it was time for our remodel.”

WTOP’s Nardos Mesmer contributed to this report.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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