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'Engulfed in flames:' Longtime Belgrade cafe closes doors after kitchen fire

Rhonda Gilbert surveys the damage caused by a kitchen fire inside Center Ice Cafe on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2021..jpg
Posted at 5:20 PM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 19:20:50-04

BELGRADE — A downtown Belgrade restaurant is closed after investigators say a fire started in its kitchen.

Investigators say the fire threatened to destroy the building.

With the help of firefighters and the business owner, herself, fire crews from Bozeman City Fire and Central Valley Fire say it could have been much worse.

Center Ice Cafe here in Belgrade has been here for years, as a staple, until the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, when Rhonda Gilbert came in to find the kitchen billowing with smoke, and not enough time.

“About a half an hour after we had evacuated the restaurant, the fryer and the grill and everything were engulfed in flames,” Gilbert says.

Gilbert recounts smoke, creeping up the walls over her kitchen fryer during prime business hour, around 11:30 am, with Gilbert attempting to maintain calm in the storm.

“The guests that were here with menus, we kindly asked them to vacate,” Gilbert says. “We were a little nervous about the smoke, affecting anybody.”

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“First of all, when you walk in my door - when you come in a second time, you are family,” Gilbert says. “Not just a dollar in my drawer. They are family. You make an impression on people when you take care of them and it comes back to you.”

For Gilbert, the Center Ice Cafe is more than a restaurant, filling the space in one of Belgrade’s historic downtown buildings for the last five-plus years.

“Several different restaurants have been in this location,” Gilbert says. “(It is a) very old building. If things would have gotten out of hand and if I hadn’t done what I did, it’s a very historical building, very old, it could have easily taken the whole building down.”

When MTN News has visited in the past, Gilbert wasn’t alone - but tragedy has struck beyond the fire.

“This restaurant is my bread and butter,” Gilbert says. “This is how I support my son and if anybody knows, I recently lost my husband five months ago to cancer. This is how I take care of my son.”

Brant Gilbert, whom MTN’s Cody Boyer has spoken with many times before for various Belgrade stories, passed away in April.

Fire crews acted quickly, but so did Rhonda with her own fire extinguisher.

“If I did not do what I had done to stay in here and keep those flames down before the fire truck got here, It could have gone far into the building and I did not want that,” Gilbert says. “I did not want that. I had to protect every other business and every other person in this building.”

Rhonda says now an investigation must take place around the fryer.

Until then, the doors are closed indefinitely, an impact felt by the rest of the community.

“People were parking two blocks away and walking over here just to hug me and tell me they were sorry and is there anything that they can do,” Gilbert says. “We will be back running. How long? I don’t know. Now I have nothing to pay my bills and take care of my son and it could be months. Months.”

A GoFundMe page is up helping to cover those expenses, while Gilbert insists the restaurant will be fine with help from insurance.

Ultimately, Rhonda echoes Brant in looking ahead to the time after she picks up the pieces.

“First of all, when you walk in my door - when you come in a second time, you are family,” Gilbert says. “Not just a dollar in my drawer. They are family. You make an impression on people when you take care of them and it comes back to you.”

“It makes you so proud,” Brant said during an interview at Bubby’s Burger Barn in 2020. “My business cannot be your priority. We appreciate you for it. We love you for it. Take care of yourself because once this is over, we want to see every one of you again.”

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'Engulfed in flames:' Longtime Belgrade cafe closes doors after kitchen fire