JC Wine Cellars returns to area’s fine dining lineup

EAST SPRINGFIELD – It was every restaurateur’s worst nightmare.

A full house with people in line. More reservations for the evening. Loyal customers enjoying another evening of fine dining at their favorite restaurant.

And then, out of nowhere, mother nature delivered a devastating blow so severe you not only have to call it a night, but the damage is so bad you’re out of commission for several months.

Then it gets worse – rumors start to fly. In the meantime, you’re trying to start a new venture at the same time you’re trying to repair your crown jewel. Months go by, and the efforts to repair the damage drag on. You try to retain your staff, and they stay loyal. The rumors become worse, and some even seem surprised when you re-open the business you spent years building.

Such was the case for Gary and Janet Meal, owners of JC Wine Cellars in East Springfield. Opening in 1998, the Meals built the reputation of their business one customer at a time, shedding blood, sweat and tears to earn a reputation as one of the area’s finest dining establishments.

The restaurant re-opened in November, but even now some people still don’t realize they are back in business.

It was just an average Tuesday June evening when the winds began to blow and the weather got worse. Still, there were about 70 diners and some waiting to be seated when a lightning strike hit the restaurant’s liquid propane tank, knocking out virtually every electrical and gas-powered device in the building. It was a night to remember, as Gary Meal recalls.

“It was the last week of June, and it was a Tuesday night,” said Gary, adding the date was June 25. “We had a direct lightning strike here. It sounded like a bomb, and the building shook. The whole area shook.”

There’s no natural gas service in the area, so the only alternative for fine cooking is using liquid propane, which is housed in a tank and fed by a line into the kitchen, said the Meals.

“We were very lucky,” said Janet, adding the tank was ungrounded. “Had that tank been grounded it would have blown up.”

When the lightning hit the tank “the charge had to go somewhere,” said Gary, adding the strike blew the regulator off the tank and traveled through the line into the building.

“(The charge) went into every device with an electrical circuit in this building,” said Janet. “It fried everything.”

The strike left exit marks on the tank that “looked like bullet holes,” Gary said. “Once in the building the charge spidered into the main breaker.”

The Meals said it took little time

before they realized the extent of the havoc caused. Casualties included three furnaces, three air conditioning units, the television sets, computers, kitchen equipment, electrical receptacles, security cameras, the outside sign – virtually anything that used electricity or propane gas, said the Meals.

“It was a full house that night,” said Janet. “We had probably 70 diners here and more coming in the door.”

The blast not only shook the building but also the patrons and staff, including one unfortunate woman in the restroom next to the propane tank. Janet said the drop ceiling shook and brought down some of the infrastructure. “It was pretty scary,” continued Janet, adding it was more than fortunate no one was injured. “When the generator didn’t kick on I said to Gary – ‘The (propane) tank got hit.'”

The restaurant was left in total darkness until candles were lit, and the Meals tried to make the best of the situation.

“The majority of people here had already eaten,” said Janet. “Everyone who came in (after the lightning strike) we invited in for a glass of wine on us and then told them they had to eat somewhere else for the evening.”

As if to add insult to injury, the Meals said the rumors about the business were hard, if not impossible, to quell, but both said they never once entertained the idea of not re-opening.

“There were lots of rumors we would never open again,” said Gary, adding all such rumors were false. “There was just so much damage we knew it was going to take awhile.”

Janet said some of the rumors were ludicrous.

“There was never any fire,” said Janet. “It was all electrical. We were lucky. We could have burned to the ground. It took us months to get everything back online. And the cleaning – insulation was everywhere. Just trying to get everything scheduled and back online wasn’t going to happen in just a month.”

JC Wine Cellars re-opened in mid-November and is open from noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

“We wanted to be open for the holidays,” said Janet.

“When the weather breaks we’ll go back to our normal hours,” said Gary, adding the restaurant will be adding Lenten specials, including fish fries. “We’ll still have our two-for-Tuesday specials.”

The Meals said they have their loyal customers to thank for flocking back to the restaurant.

“The patrons have been extremely happy,” said Janet.

“It feels nice to have been missed,” Gary added.

To reach the restaurant, call (740) 543-4200.

(Miller can be contacted at mmiller@heraldstaronline.com.)