Fire-damaged S&S won’t be serving any comfort food for now

The fire-damaged S&S Cafeteria on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard near Orange Grove Road could be closed for at least a week. It’s been serving up Southern-style comfort food since 1979.

The S&S Cafeteria in West Ashley is a rarity on the local restaurant scene.

But its loyal customers with a hankering for its wide selection and heaping portions of comfort foods are temporarily out of luck.

A pre-dawn fire Wednesday damaged the long-standing cafeteria. It could be next week before the restaurant reopens.

The blaze appears to have started in a laundry room in the rear of the building, said Mike DeLaney, general manager. The damage was contained to the bathroom-sized room, he said.

The ceiling collapsed on an office next to the laundry area and a nearby room sustained some damage as well. The fire did not spread to the dining room or the roof, DeLaney said.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Several hours after the blaze was put out, a smoky smell emanated from the front and back doors of the restaurant at 1104 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. The entire interior likely will require a good scrubbing, DeLaney said.

“When you get smoke damage like that, you have to have it professionally cleaned,” he said.

Several of the 45 S&S employees gathered at the back of the restaurant Wednesday morning to assess the damage and find out when they might be able to return to work.

“We’re the last cafeteria in Charleston,” office manager Charlene Adkins said.

Indeed, this gravy-covered slice of Americana has survived as other cafeteria-style restaurants in the region have faded away. Morrison’s Cafeteria was a Charleston dining staple until it was sold in 1998 by Piccadilly Cafeteria, which, in turn, closed its last local restaurant, on Mall Drive in North Charleston, in mid-2012.

S&S is part of family-owned Smith and Sons Foods and was started in Columbus, Ga., some 77 years ago. It operates eight old-school cafeterias in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“Serving the finest Southern, comfort food in the South, since 1936!” the company’s website declares. Buses are welcome at all locations, the chain says. The menu features 115 items, from pear salad to chopped sirloin to whipped potatoes to all-American brownies.

The S&S on Sam Rittenberg has been serving up those sort of fare since 1978. Adkins said she started working at the West Ashley cafeteria in 1979, after working for several years at the long-gone S&S in downtown Charleston.

As for Wednesday’s fire, she said nothing like that has ever happened before at the restaurant, though she noted that the business was closed during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

DeLaney, the general manager, said it could be next week before he can reopen, depending on the amount of time for cleanup, repairs and inspections.

A second insurance adjuster is expected at the site Thursday, and cleanup and repairs cannot begin before the damage assessment is completed, DeLaney said.

“We hate to lose the business, but we have to be closed for now,” he said.

The Charleston Fire Marshals office is investigating. The fire was reported at 3 a.m., and firefighting crews from Charleston, St. Andrews and North Charleston responded.

Most of the blaze was extinguished by 3:20 a.m., and it was declared under control by 3:40, according to fire officials.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or John McDermott of The Post and Courier contribued to this report.