PISMO BEACH, Calif. - A Central Coast family that owns the popular Cool Cat Cafe restaurants in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo recently lost two other restaurants during last week's devastating fire in Lahaina, Maui.
"It's kind of surreal in the fact that it's so much to take in," said co-owner Sean Corpuel, while speaking at Cool Cat Cafe in Pismo Beach on Monday morning.
Corpuel and his family have been longtime owners of two Lahaina restaurants, Cool Cat Cafe since 2003 and Captain Jack's for 10 years. Both were located on Front Street right in the heart of the popular tourist destination, directly across the street from the town's famed banyan tree.
"It's become our family and it's become our people, and to think 20 years worth of work was burned down overnight," said Corpuel. "Looking at the pictures where the wharf was, and were Cool Cats and Captain Jack's were, and to see yes, it was literally leveled to the ground."
The Arroyo Grande resident said he was aware of dangerous conditions in Maui throughout last Tuesday, on Aug. 8.
Due to high winds caused by Hurricane Dora, which was located several hundred miles south of Hawaii, conditions on Maui were concerning throughout the entire day.
"I got a text message from one of my guys at five in the morning (early Wednesday, Aug. 9), and he's like, hey give me a call and he said it's all gone," said Corpuel. "Hearing that it's all gone and then seeing the pictures are two different things. It's like that sickening pit of your stomach feeling of I can't believe this, and then to see the pictures it was just kind of horrifying seeing what these people went through."
Once images starting to come in showing the aftermath of the fire, Corpuel said he was complete disbelief. In addition to his businesses, he also lost a home in Lahaina, a place where he lived for 10 years before returning to California.
"To image 12 hours overnight that entire town went from this historic beautiful street, and a town that I loved, to being literally leveled, and now potentially condemned as a space that's hazardous," said Corpuel. "It's devastating. It's sickening. It's terrible."
While he is heartbroken about the loss of his two restaurants, what Corpuel is really worried about is the well-being of his employees, who he refers to as his 'ohana,' Hawaiian for family.
"They are our ohana and our extended family and 120 of them lost their jobs," said Corpuel. "Over half of them lost their homes. A lot of them got out with a backpack. There was no warning. There were no sirens. It was two, three in the morning. They were trying to rally each other and they got out with what was in their car. They got out with what was on their back, but not much else."
According to Corpuel, all of his employees have been accounted for, except for one new employee that he is hoping is okay, but is without a means to communicate.
Since the fire, communication has been limited with his many friends and employees, and there's a feeling of helplessness as the hours and days go by.
"Every day I wake up with that pit of my stomach and once I start with the text messages, the phone calls and the emails, it's kind of non stop the rest of the day with," said Corpuel. "Being here not being able to help over that, limited access to information, that part has been very difficult every day."
In an effort to help financially assist the 120 staff members at his two restaurants, Corpuel has organized a fundraiser on the online Gofundme platform.
"It's been amazing," said Corpuel. "In three days, we have raised $60,000. My goal is to distribute that money weekly to my staff."
As of Monday night, the total raised had climbed to over $74,000. It's money that Corpuel said will go 100% directly to his employees who are in dire need of basic life necessities.
'"We want to get them as much money in their pocket as we can, so they at least feel a little better about something and start to rebuild the things they need," said Corpuel. "They lost phones. They lost computers, their access to people, so all those things are huge and they all just cost money. There's medical supplies. There's insulin. There's a lot of that stuff they need. They are going to down to Ross. They're buying shoes. They are buying shirts. They're just buying clothes to wear."
He added that many of his employees are unsure of what comes next and where exactly they will go in the weeks and months ahead.'
Corpuel indicated some might in fact soon find work here on the Central Coast.
"We have a handful of people that are coming out here this week that are trying to fly out and we're going to try and put them to work here," said Corpuel, who is also unsure of what his family will do in the future. "Do we open up a new restaurant on the island where they can come and work? Do we relocate Cool Cats? Those questions are unknown, but we do have options. Do we want to open up a new restaurant out here and see how many people want to come out here and work because all these people want to work. They want to take care of themselves. They want to do what they can. They're just very limited in what they can do and it's reliant on other people."
Looking down the road, Corpuel is hoping to rebuild both Cool Cat Cafe and Captain Jack's in Lahaina. However, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, he added it is far too early to know exactly where and when that might eventually take place.
One thing he does know is that he wants Lahaina to rebuild as well, but only if it can retain the same charm, look and feel as it was before last week's fire.
"My hope is that we can rebuild it in a sense of the way it was before," said Corpuel. "Rebuild it structurally modern, but visually historic as it always has been because it's a beautiful street that people have been coming to forever. When you walk down the street, it just feels very homey. I don't want to see to the point where you're looking at Waikiki, but it's actually historic Lahaina, so if we can work with local business owners, land owners and local government to get them to be on the same page to what this vision is, let's rebuild Lahaina as it was, not as it some developer might want it to be."
To help donate to the Cool Cat Cafe/Captain Jack's Gofundme fundraiser, click here.