By Melvin Bravo and Elliott Deins
The Eugene-Springfield Fire Department responded to a fire at popular Latino restaurant Nelson’s in the Whit at 12:30 am Sunday, April 16. The flames were extinguished , and the owners believe the flames were intentional. It is currently being investigated as arson.
Owner Nelson Lopez and his husband TJ Mooney were both at home sleeping when their alarm system went off.
“Saturday night we got an alarm notification that there was smoke in here,” Mooney says, and he tried to wake his partner up. Lopez and Mooney live five minutes away from their business and arrived to see a couple of fire trucks and police on the scene.
As of Wednesday, April 19, the case is still open and being investigated by the Eugene Police Department’s Arson Unit, according to Melinda McLaughlin, EPD’s public information officer. She says EPD’s “best team is on it. The case has been assigned to two arson investigators and is actively being investigated as an arson. Investigators are working on identifying and contacting witnesses in the case.”
Lopez initially expressed frustration with the slow pace of the case, but says, “I can see that they’re working really hard now.” He says he was able to give detectives evidence such as videos and images from the property.
Nelson’s in the Whit is at 394 Blair Boulevard in the Whiteaker area of Eugene in the former longtime location of the Tiny Tavern. The business started as a food truck, Nelson’s Taqueria, in the parking lot before opening as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2021. As Nelson’s in the Whit, it has been able to serve more people in the community as well as host events like music, drag shows and highlight the LGBTQ+ community.
The fire department was able to contain the fire, but there was substantial damage to the restaurant. The fire created a couple of holes and gaps inside the building’s interior. Damage could be seen inside the storage cooler and some parts of the building were exposed from the outside. The smell of smoke still permeated areas of the restaurant on Monday morning.
Jeff Malos, the landlord, has rented to Lopez for more than eight years, originally as the food truck location, and had some thoughts on the fire’s possible origins
“I’ve owned that property for 29 years,” Malos says. “We ran a tavern there for 20 years, you’ll have disgruntled employees that you have to fire, you have disgruntled customers that have to get 86’ed.”
Malos says a number of people could have been responsible for this fire. He mentions homeless people, an RV that was parked behind the building and maybe someone in the area holding a grudge against Lopez.
Nelson’s was back up and running on Monday, April 17, and asking for support through a GoFundMe page at GoFund.Me/998ae449, which has raised $1,505 of a $10,000 goal as of press time.