The iconic Grayton Beach hangout was popular with locals and tourists
GRAYTON BEACH — Pamela Loebel was sleeping soundly in her rental home early Wednesday until the sound of "an explosion" woke her.
Loebel said she looked out her bedroom window and could see flames extending over the two-story homes off Hotz Avenue in Grayton Beach. She knew immediately what was happening: the Red Bar was on fire.
"I just had a gut feeling that's what it was," Loebel said. "It was a really windy morning. We didn't know if the fire was going to spread. We packed up all of our stuff, got in our vehicle and drove a few blocks away to safety."
Red Bar & Picolo's Restaurant at 70 Hotz Ave. was a total loss after a fire started inside the eatery about 5:30 a.m.
South Walton Fire District crews discovered heavy smoke and flames coming from inside the bar and eatery when they arrived.
The Walton County Sheriff's Office shut down Hotz Avenue between Garfield and DeFuniak streets while firefighters managed the scene.
Crews battled strong winds, which made the fire difficult to fight, according to the district. The fire was under control by 6 a.m.
The Florida State Fire Marshal's Office has not determined the cause of the fire, but electricity could be a possible cause. The fire is still under investigation, the fire district said.
The scene has been cleared, and property damages are estimated to be between $350K and $500K.
Fernando Petit, son of part-owner Phillippe Petit, said the family was devastated by Wednesday's news.
"It's only a building, but it feels as if a family member just died," Fernando said in a statement. "It's very sad to see this happen. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take many steps forward."
South Walton Fire District Fire Marshal Sammy Sanchez said the building collapsed as firefighters battled the blaze. A portion of the bar's gift shop was the only part remaining.
Residents reported hearing an explosion, which was suspected to be from the ignition of propane tanks. Sanchez, however, could not confirm the rumors of propane tank explosions later Wednesday.
Crews worked into the afternoon to control hot spots hidden under the rubble. The State Fire Marshal was called out to investigate.
A rich history
The Red Bar was a beloved landmark in South Walton. It opened in the 1960s when Grayton Beach was a quiet, dirt-road beach town.
A group of friends bought the building, which was the town's country store at the time. It had a washateria, game room, convenience store and two gas pumps.
The new owners kept the building operating as a convenience store for a while, although they built a small bar for themselves onto the back. They enjoyed it until authorities discovered it and shut it down.
The former store was leased out over the decades, including a stint in the '80s as the popular Paradise Café.
Brothers Oliver and Phillippe Petit bought the bar in 1995, when Grayton Beach still opened its doors to tourists in the spring and closed in the fall.
Since then, the Red Bar has remained a popular hangout for locals and tourists. It's widely known for its eclectic character, dedication to hosting local musicians, big Sunday crowds and bloody marys.
Fernando Petit said it's now his family's mission to bring Red Bar back to its former glory.
"We will come back stronger than ever," he said. "We'll build from the ashes and can't wait to see what will come out. We can't wait to serve each one of you again with our music, mimosas, bloody marys, crab cakes and, of course, our panned chicken. Thank you all for your wishes and prayers."
Co-owner Oliver “Oli” Petit also remained positive while in a meeting with Walton County commissioners on Wednesday.
“On behalf of my family and the staff of The Red Bar, I want to thank the community for the tremendous outpouring of support that we have already received. It means a lot to me that we live in a county where our leaders recognize the importance of our shared history, and the efforts so many of us make to shape our community in a positive and unique way. "
“I want to tell our patrons and my staff that we will be back, and we will rebuild to the exact previous specifications – maybe with a better bathroom. Life goes on.”