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Restaurant’s response to October fire inspires extraordinary volunteer results

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald - DURANGO, CO- 12-31-16- The exterior of El Moro that may be reopening soon after a fire closed the establishment last year.

The fire itself was out of the ordinary, out of the blue.

Not due to negligence or an act of anger or arson, the early morning fire at El Moro Spirits & Tavern in early October started at a gas-fired water heater, a modern unit that was properly installed.

Hours later, the fire was out, but so were more than three dozen employees counting on El Moro for at least part, if not all, of their weekly wages. Out of their jobs, they thought – looking for work in the fall, a tough time to find jobs in Durango – and in extraordinary circumstances for at least the next three months as smoke, water and structural damage caused by the fire, the sprinkler system and the efforts of firefighters to access the attic spaces was repaired. All part of a fast, effective emergency response that has been praised by business owners as “extraordinary.”

In all aspects, it may seem like the term was being overapplied. Actually, it was just starting to be properly defined.

Because almost immediately after the fire, El Moro’s general manager, David Woodruff, announced that the business would continue to pay staff through the closure. It was an extraordinary move, motivated by his desire to retain the employees who have made El Moro a popular and successful business in a town that can be notoriously rough on new dining ventures.

As part of the deal, Woodruff asked the staff to find ways to contribute to the community by finding a cause that inspired them to volunteer some of their suddenly available time.

During the next weeks, El Moro employees earned praise countywide for their help at Manna Soup Kitchen, San Juan Mountain Association, Community Connections, Wolfwood Refuge, La Plata County Humane Society and the local Sexual Assault Services Organization. Their experiences, and the stories they now tell, are in many cases far-removed from ordinary bar and restaurant work.

Fortunately, this chapter of El Moro’s story has a happy ending. The tavern should reopen later this month, and 36 of 42 employees idled by the fire will be back on the job.

It remains to be seen if visitors and loyal local patrons will return in the kind of numbers that has made El Moro one of the places downtown where people gladly put names on the waiting list. We hope they do. By its actions after the fire, the business has demonstrated an exceptional loyalty to its staff. The tavern deserves an equal response from the community.

“We impressed upon (staff) that the community here has embraced us since we opened our doors, so it only makes sense to have some reciprocity there in terms of giving back,” Woodruff said.

Reciprocity implies a circle, of course, and circles have no beginning and no end. A big welcome back for El Moro would keep the do-what’s-best for-locals ball rolling.

The recovery story does leave one question: Does it take an extraordinary set of circumstances to put people in the position, and in the mindset, to volunteer?

If the answer is no, then might the El Moro story inspire more local businesses and their employees to explore more ways in which they can bolster local volunteer and service organizations beyond an annual charitable donation?

We hope so. Because that would truly be extraordinary.

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