San Diego

San Diego-based restaurant owner's Lahaina beach café destroyed by Maui wildfire

“I had no idea and she’s like, ‘You know that Lahaina’s literally on fire?’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean? We’re like a mile and a half away,” John Ealy said.

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John Ealy owns several restaurants including one in San Diego’s Mission Hills neighborhood called Harley Gray Kitchen & Bar. NBC 7 visited it on Sunday morning, and it was bustling with the usual brunch crowd, but one of Ealy’s other eateries more than 2,500 miles away, called Betty’s Beach Café in Lahaina, will not see that kind of energy for a long time, if ever.

“Everyone has a soft spot for Lahaina in a different way I think,” Ealy said.

He grew up going to Maui with his family. At the time, his dad owned a restaurant there. A few years later, after it closed, Ealy decided it was his time to open one up and named it Betty’s after his grandmother.

“It’s tragic and it's heart-wrenching, you know, that business was personal to me more than any of them,” Ealy said.

That’s because Betty’s Beach Café was one of the more than 2,200 buildings to be destroyed or damaged in West Maui by a wildfire.

“I got to Maui on Monday night and when I landed, the first thing I did when I landed was like, ‘this is so much windier than normal,” he said. "I’ve come for 20 years and this was kind of nuts.”

Ealy shared a few videos with NBC 7 of the wind in West Maui before the fire started. Trees could be seen blowing sporadically, one was even completely uprooted and on its side. The next morning, Ealy said he woke up and noticed the power was out at his home a few miles away from Lahaina.

“There’s no communication, there’s no cellphone service, like nothing,” he said.

Then, he started to see smoke in the distance, and a lot of it.

“We were kind of like no way,” Ealy told NBC 7 he has experienced fires in Maui before, but said they would usually stay in the mountain and open brush areas. “It had never come into town.”

When Ealy finally got one bar of cell service, his phone was flooded with notifications.

“All of the sudden like 80 texts came through and they’re all like, ‘are you ok, are you ok,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m ok, power’s out,” Ealy said.

He finally got his sister on the phone, who was on the mainland and she told him what was happening.

“I had no idea and she’s like, ‘you know that Lahaina’s literally on fire?’ and I’m like, ‘what do you mean? We’re like a mile and a half away,” he said.

Ealy’s sisters then told him that someone sent her an image of 505 Front St. where Betty’s Beach Cafe had stood just hours earlier.

“Instantly, we were just like, ‘is everyone ok?,” Ealy said, as he described trying to get in touch with the roughly 30 staff members at the cafe. “It took a couple of days to get a hold of a couple people we were really nervous about, but everyone’s safe.”

They are safe, but many of them lost their homes, so Ealy organized an online fundraiser to help them recover. He also said that on Friday, Aug. 20 at the three restaurants he owns in California, including Harley Gray in San Diego, Zelda’s on the Beach in Capitola and Ideal Bar & Grill in Santa Cruz, part of the proceeds will go to the Lahaina employee’s fund.

“Mine’s a business and it’s tragic and it’s heart-wrenching, you know, but it’s a business and I can put that there and just focus on the people that lost their homes,” he said.

As for if Betty's will ever make a comeback, Ealy said, "I mean Betty's could open anywhere. We could do Betty's Solana Beach, Betty's Cardiff."

For more ways to help those in Maui, click here.

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