Tara Alatorre
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The Buffalo Chip is back to business as usual one year after fire


Tara Alatorre

CAVE CREEK – It is a typical Friday night at The Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek:  the dance floor is hopping, the bulls are bucking, the barbeque grills are smoking and the beer is flowing, so it is hard to believe that just one year ago, this place was reduced to a pile of rubble and ashes after a fire caused by an alleged arson on Thanksgiving last year.

However, nearly $1,000,000, and one year later, the newly rebuilt Buffalo Chip has risen from the ashes with the same cozy, neighborhood bar ambiance it always did; steer skulls are tacked to the wall, pictures of Western relics line the hallways, warm rustic wood bars and tables fill the room giving you a sense of familiarity, which is comforting if you were a patron of The Chip before it was destroyed in the fire last year.

“Business is brisk right now because everyone kind of wants to see the changes, and the new building is truly unique and there is nothing like it in the Valley,” said owner Larry Wendt in a phone interview. “We got an upgrade if there is anything good that came out of this.”

While Wendt and his staff have excelled in capturing the essence of this small-town Western bar, adding every painstaking detail to make his patrons feel as if they have returned home, it is hard to ignore the upgrades the saloon received, such as the new big bathrooms, and of course an up-to-code fire sprinkler system.

“We’ve got great restrooms, great kitchen, great infrastructure to support all the business we have always done,” he said. “Yes, we’re back to business as usual!”

Despite business being back to usual at the Buffalo Chip, details of the fire still loom. An arson investigation is still open at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, with a female suspect in Nevada being looked at, and the Maricopa County Attorney’s office is now involved, said Wendt.

“Arson investigations are lengthy and difficult because most of the evidence gets burned in the fire,” said Wendt. “It’s really tough, but I think they are doing a good job and they should be announcing her in custody soon.”

Last year, rumors circulated around Cave Creek about the fire being started by a disgruntled bar patron who was asked to leave when she would not quit smoking inside of the bar, although it has not been confirmed through MCSO or MCAO. The Rural Metro Fire Department, who was first on scene at the fire last year, confirmed that janitorial crews reported rolls of toilet paper on fire in the women’s restroom, and the fire originated from the bathrooms.

“I don’t have a name, but from description it is her [woman that witnesses say allegedly started the fire],” said Wendt.

At this time, MSCO would not comment on the open investigation or confirm any details about a suspect. The MCAO would only say they are currently reviewing a submittal regarding the arson case.

When the suspected arsonist allegedly burned the Buffalo Chip last year, Wendt wanted to just throw in the towel and close the doors, but he says the overwhelming support of the community roped him back in.

“Within a few days, the community banded around my employees and helped take care of them for the holidays…and our customers just really clamored for us to come back, so we’re back, and we’re thankful,” said Wendt on why he decided to rebuild.

Even with the $58,000 the town of Cave Creek raised for Wendt’s employees, he still lost over half of his staff while rebuilding the Buffalo Chip.  He employed about 100 people before the fire and has about 50 staff members today.

Wendt says he could not have done all this in a year without the support of the community, the Cave Creek Town Council, and his staff. Although it only took about four months to rebuild, a lot of work and money went into updating the Buffalo Chip to meet new building codes.

Wendt put about $984,000 of his own money into rebuilding the Buffalo Chip and the insurance paid $150,000.  All of that went into permit fees, construction costs, grading, drainage, new bathrooms, fire alarms, an updated kitchen, security systems, fire alarms, a sprinkler system, and of course all the perfect details. 

All the wood at the Buffalo Chip was hand-selected by Wendt himself and was sourced from the Mount Shasta region in Washington, ensuring an authentic Western feel. Solid wooden beams frame the building with rustic wooden ceilings, and the hand-crafted long, solid, wood bar and community tables give it a cozy elegance.

The Buffalo Chip even had a decoration drive of sorts, asking the people of the town to donate “Western relics” that could be hung on the wall, and received an outpouring of support, said Fran Booth, the spokeswoman for the saloon, in an interview.

“People have been so very generous, we even had someone donate two, 19-foot wooden carvings,” Booth said.

Since the Buffalo Chip burned down last year, the Silver Spur Saloon and several homes were claimed by fire in Cave Creek, and Wendt says the business community feels a little more vulnerable, and a little more aware, but his outlook is positive.

“I think the future for The Chip is bright,” said Wendt. “We have a new building, and our customer base has remained loyal with us. I just want to say thank you to this community, the town council, our customers and our staff for sticking with us for the last year.”