Owner of Winter Haven restaurant that caught fire provided free meals to first responders during pandemic

Polk County

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – Tears filled the eyes of the owner of a longtime and popular family-run restaurant in Polk County the day after flames tore through his kitchen.

“It’s hard, ya know?” said Michael Floridino. “We feed a lot of people, a lot of customers.”

The smoke started billowing from the kitchen around 9 a.m. Sunday at Floridino’s Italian Kitchen on 8th Street Northwest in Winter Haven.

Neighbors knew something was wrong.

“I heard more sirens and I said, ‘Bette, I think something’s going on. It sounds like they’re stopping close by,’” recalled Richard Hoffman, who lives in an apartment across the street.

They went to the window and saw their favorite pizza place was in trouble.

“I said, ‘oh my goodness, Floridino’s is on fire!'” said Hoffman.

“They spread so quick that it’s hard to keep anything under control,” said Floridino.

Floridino, who immigrated from Italy when he was 13 and worked for many years in New England, opened the Winter Haven restaurant in June 1988. Since then, he has grown a strong local following and earned the Guinness World Record for world’s largest calzone.

“If they ate lasagna thirty years ago and they’re craving lasagna, they can come in and have the same lasagna that they were craving 30 years ago. Our recipes have never changed,” he said.

Business remained steady during the pandemic as the restaurants shifted to a take-out, contactless model. He runs another restaurant in Lake Hamilton, with another one under construction.

Like other businesses, the labor shortage has been a problem.

Now he’s looking at a closed-down restaurant in Winter Haven for the next six weeks or more.

“I’m still in shock. My boys are still in shock and we’re trying to do the best we can,” said Floridino.

Officials say the fire started as an employee was preparing ingredients in the fryer using hot oil.

That employee ran outside and called 911 when the fire started.

Nobody was hurt.

“We could have lost it all but from what I’m being told, they were here in a matter of two minutes,” said Floridino.

Those firefighters who showed up to take down this fire are familiar with Floridino’s.

The restaurant launched a Facebook group when the pandemic hit to provide free meals to first responders and their families. In all, they gave away nearly 1,000 meals.

“Floridino’s is a very big supporter of public safety and we’re really sad to see this happen to them. They’ve been very good partners and community partners,” said Charlie Bird, Winter Haven public safety director.

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