Rebuilding Bella: Dirnberger uses fire as motivation to build better restaurant

Monday, November 21, 2005
Belle Italia owner Mark Dirnberger discussed how he went about turning tragedy into triumph by rebuilding his downtown Cape Girardeau restaurant better than it was before the fire. (Diane L. Wilson)

In the early morning hours of March 19, Mark Dirnberger sat on the curb and watched somberly as his dreams went up in smoke. His Bella Italia was burning.

"Fire is relentless; it's mean," Dirnberger said. "It has no mercy. There's no way to explain the feeling of emptiness you have. There's not a thing you can do. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, there go all of my dreams.'"

Even after firefighters snuffed out the blaze -- caused when an employee tossed a cigarette into a trash can under the bar -- only a charred shell remained.

Though the fire was mainly in the front of the building, everything on the inside of the landmark downtown Italian restaurant at 20 N. Spanish was ruined, from the kitchen equipment to the dining area to the ornate wooden bar. Even the items on the walls had melted from the extreme heat.

"There was really nothing left," Dirnberger said. "Nothing."

But even as Dirnberger sat there watching the firefighters work, his thoughts turned to how he could rebuild. Make the restaurant better. More of the kind of restaurant he had wanted to begin with. Make it more his place.

"I was already thinking: Where do we go from here? How can I move forward?" Dirnberger said.

The results can be seen as the restaurant is set to re-open eight months later. There's a new outdoor dining area that will seat about 25 people. New wood floors have been put in. A bar that once sat in The Club, which operated on Good Hope years ago, has now been refurbished and installed. Windows that once were used in the Royal N'Orleans restaurant have been used to decorate a wall that will separate a smoking area from the non-smokers.

There's also all new kitchen equipment, new banquet rooms, two new bathrooms and several other changes. Dirnberger describes it as having a Boston/Chicago type feel.

"Over here in the back is going to be the round table for the Mafia crowd," Dirnberger joked on a recent tour.

But he really thinks the changes will be noticeable to customers. Waiting times should be down thanks to more cooking equipment, he said.

Dirnberger hedged a bit on revealing how much the work cost, but he did say it was more than $500,000.

"We didn't just give it a facelift," he said. "We made it better."

He didn't wait long after the fire. Dirnberger said he started the very next day.

Dirnberger would have a lot of restaurant experience to draw from as he went about the difficult work of rebuilding. Working in restaurants is all he knows.

When he was 16, he went to work at Burger King while he attended Notre Dame High School. After he graduated in 1976, he worked at Cedar Street at the Ramada Inn's restaurant for 23 years, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to hosting, seating people and even keeping up with the books.

Eventually, he became food and beverage manager, which means he oversaw every aspect of the day-to-day operations of the restaurant and bar.

"I've always loved working in restaurants," Dirnberger said. "There's no monotony. Something changes every day."

Dirnberger says he's a social person and he also enjoys being around people, something restaurant work demands.

When Logan's Roadhouse opened in Cape Girardeau, Dirnberger went to work there for two years. But he admits now that he wasn't entirely happy working at a corporate franchise that does things a certain way and frowns on thinking outside the box.

"I'm too creative," he said. "It was too confining for me. I like to create and do things."

Soon, Dirnberger wanted to do something he had never done before -- own his own restaurant. A friend, Michael Risch who co-owns Mollie's, heard that Dirnberger was looking. Risch mentioned it to John Wyman, who had started Bella Italia with his wife, Jerry.

Risch said it really happened because both he and John Wyman had both worked for Dirnberger at Cedar Street years ago. After Risch bought Mollie's, Dirnberger came down to congratulate him.

"He said that both John and I had both worked for him and gone on to do our own thing," Risch said. "He said, 'Shoot, if you guys can do it, I can. It really came together like that."

Risch said he knew that Dirnberger would be a good fit for Bella Italia.

"He's very business savvy because his background gives him all of the tools," he said. "He knows the intricacies of the restaurant side and the business side. After he talked to us, it gave him the confidence that he really had it within himself to run his own business."

Risch also realizes that Dirnberger had a tough time after the fire. Risch, who rents half of his townhouse to Dirnberger, was there with him as he watched the fire.

"What do you say?" Risch recalled. "There's no words for it. There's nothing you can say. It's like a death in the family."

But Risch said he never doubted that Dirnberger would recover. Dirnberger possesses a drive that only comes from owning your own business, Risch said.

"It's emblematic of Mark's entrepreneurial spirit to take it and make it into something better," Risch said. "He had bought something that already existed. If anything good can come from a fire, it gave him a way to put his own personality into his place. You get in there with a hammer and a nail and a place becomes a part of you."

Risch said Dirnberger should be proud of the way the restaurant looks now. It's good enough to make Risch' see it as stronger competition to his own place.

"I've actually had to make some strategic plans of my own to maintain a competitive edge," Risch said. "I think Mark's place is going to be more successful than it was before."

Tim Arbeiter, director of the downtown promoting Old Town Cape, said Dirnberger should be commended.

"It was a terrible loss," Arbeiter said. "To take that restaurant from what it was to what it's going to be is remarkable. I know a lot of people are eager to see it open. It's going to provide a wonderful restaurant for downtown again."

Dirnberger said he's learned a lot from the fire. He even has the melted remains of the waste-basket where the fire started.

"I'm going to use this as a learning aid with my employees," he said. "I don't want to go through it again."

Meet Mark Dirnberger

Age: 47

Position: Owner, Bella Italia.

Education: Graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1976; took several night classes in business at Southeast Missouri State University; worked for Cedar Street at Ramada Inn for 23 years; also worked for Logan's Roadhouse for two years.

Personal: Two children, Christopher, 24, Amanda, 19.

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