An early morning fire Sunday heavily damaged Dunlap, Tennessee's iconic Cookie Jar Café restaurant, and state investigators are looking into the cause.
The restaurant remains closed as the state probe continues, but no foul play appears to be involved, authorities said.
According to a Dunlap Volunteer Fire Department news release, Dunlap firefighters got the call around 6 a.m. CDT Sunday following reports from the scene that smoke was coming from the roof.
Dunlap firefighters said water supply was an issue because there is no fire hydrant nearby, so they had to establish a water shuttle operation to provide water for fighting the fire using multiple fire tanker trucks.
"After about three hours of operation, the fire was controlled," the statement said. "At the request of the owners and District Attorney General Courtney Lynch, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Arson Section responded to oversee the fire investigation."
In an email, Lynch said Monday the TBI was called in because of one of the owner's links to law enforcement.
Jody and Sue Ann Lockhart own the Cookie Jar, Lynch said, and Jody Lockhart was a longtime detective with the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Office and currently is the investigator for Lynch's office.
"Our concern was retaliation due to an owner's previous employment in law enforcement and now with our office," Lynch said. "The owners were not under suspicion as they were out of town at the time of the fire and had no insurance. TBI determined it was an electrical fire and there were no signs of criminal activity."
Opened in 2002, the Cookie Jar Café is nestled in the rolling hills of the Sequatchie Valley on the Johnson family's farm and easily visible for miles around because of the bright blue tin roof that stands out from the patchwork of farmland on the north end of Dunlap. The Johnson's history with the farm goes back 150 years, according to the café's website. The Cookie Jar is so named for the extensive collection of cookie jars displayed throughout the restaurant.
The owners called for prayers in a social media post.
"Please keep my employees in your prayers. We had a terrible loss this morning," the message posted Sunday by the Lockharts said. "Watching 21 years go up in smoke is a difficult thing to endure. Thank you all for all the support over the years. Pray for us to make the correct decisions and to let God guide us. The Cookie Jar is officially closed until further notice."
Cookie Jar lovers from near and far have posted hundreds of condolences and well-wishing messages since Sunday.
Ohio resident Jennifer Findley recalled past Cookie Jar visits with her mother and father.
"Oh, this makes me so terribly sad! My parents spent some of their retirement years in Dunlap and loved to go there — and their last name is Johnson," Findley posted. "They took me there when I would visit, and we would get your huge coconut cake or some other goodies to take home. I had hoped to make it back there. My parents are both gone now, but it is such a sweet memory for me. Many prayers being sent to you from Ohio."
Lisa Rothwell Rice, of nearby Pikeville, offered some words from experience.
"Our restaurant caught on fire a few years back, and we were closed for around six months for restoration," Rice wrote in her post. "The worst part is how it affects your employees. Prayers for all of you during this difficult time."
Kathy Hubbard-Schniering, of Chattanooga, recalled a visit after making Tennessee her home.
"We have loved the Cookie Jar since moving to Tennessee 16 years ago," Hubbard-Schniering wrote. "We have taken so many family and friends there over the years and even did curbside pick up during COVID. I hope God hears all prayers and knows this community needs you to be here. Thankful no one was injured and looking forward to your return."
Lynch is also among Cookie Jar fans mourning the damaging fire.
"I have eaten at the Cookie Jar multiple times, although I do not recall the exact last time," Lynch said. "I have always tried to take advantage of the opportunity to eat there when in the area."
According to Lynch, the Lockharts said almost all of the cookie jars survived since the fire was mostly upstairs while the downstairs area had considerable smoke and water damage.
Sue Anne Lockhart when the restaurant turned 15 remarked to the Chattanooga Times Free Press how trying the industry can be. At the time, the Cookie Jar's collection of cookie jars stood at nearly 400.
"Restaurant life is hard," she said in 2017. "It's very similar to farming. You have to have a deep faith in God, a strong work ethic and thick skin."