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Fire damage halts business at Pilot

CENTRAL POINT ' There were no 6-inch sandwiches sold for &

36;1.99 at Subway Monday, no one responded to the help-wanted poster at Taco Bell and nary a drop of diesel was pumped out back.

As fires go, Sunday morning's blaze at the Pilot Travel Center wasn't a big one, but the timing was a punch in the solar plexus.

This hurts, said Pilot Regional Manager Chris Gianatassio. You get certain big travel times like Fourth of July, and spring break is one of those big travel times.

Pilot's Central Point Subway and Taco Bell franchises account for &

36;2.6 million in annual sales. That's a significant chunk of the &

36;200 million in sales the chain's 250 restaurants produced in 2004.

Some 4,000 customers go through the truck stop on a given day.

— It's one of the higher-volume restaurants in our division, Gianatassio said. It's a large profit center for the company.

No firm timeline has been set for re-opening, but Gianatassio and General Manager Dean B. Haugset were hoping to have gas and diesel operations restored by the end of the week.

The pumps are fine, but we're going to need some temporary point-of-sale equipment, Gianatassio said. We can fly in some new hardware and be ready to go pretty quickly. If the wires weren't damaged, and we have electricity, all we have to do is flip the switch and be pumping.

But at midday Monday, fire investigators were still reviewing the scene and there was no guarantee of quick power restoration.

Right now, we're still fact-finding, Gianatassio said.

Truckers, who rely on Pilot destinations on their long-haul routes, are of concern to the company.

A lot of truckers try to fuel up here, because the diesel prices in California are so high, Gianatassio said.

A few trucks still lumbered into the spacious 100-space parking area behind the center Monday, their drivers bewildered by the yellow police tape draped across Pilot's entrances.

I came in and slept for an hour and thought I was going to get a bite to eat at Taco Bell, said Dan Pederson, a driver for Windy River Transport in Vancouver, Wash. When I saw the parking lot, I thought everybody was just out on the road. I guess I'll have to go to Burger King.

It will be late April, however, before the store, trucker facilities and restaurant area are operable. Part of the interior ceiling collapsed and once the clean-up is over, walls, insulation, wiring and receptacles will have to be redone.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot employs 90 in Central Point, including three travel-center managers and four restaurant managers, as well as 10 hourly supervisors.

We're trying to move some of the people up to Rice Hill, Gianatassio said. But when you have 90 employees, it's tough to find a place for everyone.

Don Hickman, a deputy fire marshal for Jackson County Fire District No. 3, Monday revised initial inventory damage to the fuel-and-food travel center upwards to &


Pilot Travel Centers LLC had revenues of &

36;7.2 billion last year and operates 261 travel centers in 38 states and licenses 13 locations in Kansas, Montana, Iowa and Nebraska. The company employs approximately 13,000 people nationwide.

The local operation opened in November 1996 with a Dairy Queen instead of Subway.

Pilot began in 1958 as a single, family-owned gas station in Gate City, Va. In 1976, Pilot built its first convenience store and began converting its other locations into convenience stores.

The company's first travel center opened in 1981 and in 1988, Pilot began expanding its travel center operations into a nationwide network, adding fast-food restaurants.

2001 Pilot was operating 65 convenience stores and 140 travel centers in 37 states. In 2001, it entered into a join venture with Marathon Ashland Petroleum, the nation's sixth-largest refiner of petroleum products.

A pile of charred debris sits in the parking lot of the Pilot Travel Center in Central Point Monday after the center was shut down by a Sunday fire. Pilot managers hope to restore gas and diesel operations by the end of the week, but it's unlikely. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven