Katoi may resurface as pop-up after fire

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Employees of the popular Katoi restaurant that was ravaged by fire early Friday may not be without jobs for long. Business owners across Detroit are coming together and offering temporary employment for the Katoi staff.

The Katoi on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, shown in 2016, was ravaged Friday by a fire that appears to have been set during a break-in.

Owners of the Michigan Avenue eatery in Corktown were still assessing the damage Friday afternoon but vowed to reopen as soon as possible. It’s far too soon to know specifics, said Courtney Henriette, one of the owners.

In the meantime, it’s possible the critically acclaimed Thai-fusion restaurant could resurface as a pop-up in various locations.

“We are rebuilding. We are going full speed ahead,” Henriette said. But owners and staff are already thinking “how we are going to operate outside the building” in the interim, she said. “We are going to keep going in exile,” she said.

Henriette thanked the community for the outpouring of support. “It’s really just astounding,” she said.

Offers of support have come from as far away as Los Angeles and from customers who began to follow Katoi when it was a food truck operating out of the nearby Two James Spirits on Michigan Avenue.

Lisa Waud, who said she is a friend of the Katoi owners, put a call out on Facebook and received dozens of responses from merchants eager to help. Twenty-five businesses have volunteered to hire Katoi employees, Waud said.

“This is heartbreaking,” said Waud, who owns Pot & Box in Hamtramck. “The small business community here is pretty fierce and pretty loyal.”

A fundraiser for employees is planned for Saturday afternoon at neighboring MotorCity Wine, 1949 Michigan in Detroit. Donations will be collected for the temporary unemployed staff, and the bar will donate a portion of sales, according to a Facebook event page created by friends of the restaurant.

“This is about community,” said fundraiser organizer Ben Mason, who sometimes spins records at Katoi. “A lot of people that we hold very close to our hearts are employed at Katoi. We just want to help keep food in the stomachs and a roof over their heads until they can get back to work.”

The fundraiser includes disc jockeys and will run from 2-7:15 p.m. Saturday.

A GoFundMe page has also been set up to help support the staff while the restaurant rebuilds. Nearly $1,000 of the $40,000 goal was raised within the first hour.

Friends and customers of the popular Thai-inspired restaurant flooded Katoi’s Facebook page with encouraging comments Friday.

Fire investigators said they believe the blaze that tore through the restaurant early Friday morning was intentionally set.

It caught fire just after 6 a.m. and by around 7:30 a.m., the blaze was extinguished. Arson investigators remained at the site Friday morning after firefighters cleared the scene.

Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner David Fornell said it appears someone broke through the back door of the restaurant at 2520 Michigan and started the fire.

Fornell said whoever broke in may have aimed to steal liquor, but it’s unclear if anything was taken. Investigators found a tote bag full of liquor near the back door, he said.

“It appears the fire was set to cover the break-in,” Fornell said.

Fornell said there were no injuries in the fire. The restaurant was vacant at the time of the break-in.

Katoi posted a statement on its Instagram page, saying “Katoi is bigger than any building, and we will be back soon.”

Fornell said authorities have not determined whether the Katoi break-in is related to a burglary that happened early Friday at Nemo’s Bar, 1384 Michigan.

Detroit Police spokeswoman Kenyetta Hebron said at about 2:30 a.m. someone broke a 4-by-8 window to gain entry and stole four bottles of liquor, she said.

Police discovered two cash registers, one on the floor and one on the bar counter, that had been opened. It is unclear if cash was stolen, Hebron said.

The burglars also damaged security monitors for the surveillance cameras at Nemo’s.

Katoi, a Thai-influenced restaurant, debuted in early 2016 and quickly became a hit. It has seen a wait for dinner service — particularly on weekends — consistently since opening.

Katoi started as a food truck behind Two James Distillery across the street. The owners also hosted pop-up dinners around town and Katoi had a residency in Ann Arbor at the former Jerusalem Garden for a few months in 2015.

This week, the restaurant was named one of the 27 Best New Restaurant semifinalists for a prestigious James Beard Award — the only Michigan restaurant given that honor this year.

The building that houses the restaurant was formerly a gas station.


Twitter: @NicquelTerry

Staff Writer Melody Baetens contributed.