Arson to blame for Thibodaux restaurant fire

Thibodaux, La. - The sign out front read "closed" as employees in the back threw away some of the food that makes Western Sizzlin' in Thibodaux so popular.

The restaurant caught fire early Monday morning and it didn't take long for investigators to suspect arson.

Police say Derek Hebert and Donovan Hoffpauir were at a nearby bar and talked about burning down the Western Sizzlin' minutes before the fire started.

"The witnesses they were speaking with thought they were talking in jest and actually lent one of the individuals a lighter -- again, thinking it was a joke, until the two took off and walked away from them," says Thibodaux Police Chief Scott Silverii. "They said about 15 minutes later, they noticed there was flames and smoke coming from the Western Sizzler', at which time 911 was called."

Hebert and Hoffpauir now face felony charges of simple arson.

Both are former employees of the Western Sizzlin'.  Hoffpauir quit but Hebert was fired about a year ago after managers say he punched some restaurant equipment causing hundreds of dollars worth of damage.

The damage is much more extensive this time.

"Suspended ceilings collapsed with the weight of the water from the sprinkler system, and this whole room gotta' be rebuilt," says manager Mark McDonald.

Inspectors say it could take six to eight weeks to repair the damage here. The restaurant employs more than 60 people who could be out of work for the next two months.

Western Sizzlin' serves about 15,000 diners every month and workers expected a busy week with high school graduations to celebrate.

The restaurant has been a landmark in Thibodaux for nearly 30 years.

"I'm more worried about my employees than the building," says general manager Scott Boudreaux. "The building can be fixed, but 60 people [are] without a job for two months."

Boudreaux started as a cook here 10 years ago and worked his way up through company.  McDonald did, too.

"I've been here since I've been a kid in high school," he says. "It was my first job so, that's all I know."

McDonald hopes the loyal customers will come back and bring their appetites when the restaurant finally reopens.