Dead Dog Saloon blaze sparks come-back, community pride in Murrells Inlet

Fire ravaged Murrells Inlet’s Dead Dog Saloon earlier this year, shocking an already tight-knit community. The area’s support and the speedy resurrection of the popular Marshwalk restaurant made the story one of The Sun News’ top 10 of 2012.

Investigators said a cigarette smoldering in a trash can next to the eatery’s landmark Live Oak tree on the back deck sparked the blaze, first reported at 4:17 a.m. Feb. 22. Natural gas lines under the building sped the burn until officials arrived and turned off the gas, according to Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Rescue.

Immediately after the fire, the business posted on its marquee that it would “be back, bigger and better. Our spirit lives,” but no one could predict that spirit would only take 83 days to secure permits and complete the rebuild.

Crews worked almost around the clock, with a goal of opening mid-summer, but the restaurant was back in business halfway through the spring bike rally, said John Campbell, vice president of operations for the family business.

“That was just the worst night, but we immediately were calling contractors and architects – we thought we’d lose the whole summer,” Campbell said.

The fire took 95 percent of the first structure, Campbell said, but the foundation remained sound, and they were able to rebuild on the same footprint. He said originally, there was a second story they didn’t replace, which allowed for taller ceilings and better views, as well as a small addition.

Campbell said neighboring businesses were a tremendous help, hiring all of the temporarily unemployed staff members, serving meals for site workers and just giving support. He said an employee relief benefit also was organized that raised $34,000, which added up to a check for almost $1,000 for each displaced staff member.

Sue Sledz, executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, said everyone was thrilled that the Dead Dog came back so quickly, not just for the restaurant, but for its employees and for all the visitors who come to enjoy Murrells Inlet.

“The fire hit everybody in the community very hard because we realized it could have hit anyone,” Sledz said. “All members of the community, even competing restaurants, reached out to give Dead Dog support and help during that time, and those kinds of actions and sentiments are exactly what makes Murrells Inlet so special. We have a very strong sense of community and neighbors helping neighbors.”

Campbell said while losing 90 days of sales never helps, the business has made it up, and this is the season when it relies more on holiday parties. He said those bookings could have been iffy early on, but people like Peter Haentjens with Ripley’s Entertainment Group took a chance that the Dead Dog would rebound and booked its company party “on blind faith.”

The fire made news in other areas of the country, and Campbell said they’ve heard from people from other regions, a new clientele.

“It’s put us on the map in places we never heard before,” Campbell said. “I think this incident, although horrific, was a blessing in disguise.”