The popular eatery was destroyed by fire Thursday morning.

CANANDAIGUA — Nick Violas knew the Nolan’s on Canandaigua Lake restaurant had a family atmosphere. After all, he and his staff had worked hard to make it so.

But on Thursday morning, as he turned away from the “horrifying and surreal” scene of the popular South Main Street eatery burning down and his life’s work going up in flames, he saw many of his employees — a few of whom were not even scheduled to work that day — huddled together, some crying while others just watched in shock as a big part of what they all do crumbled in the flames.

A good many friendly faces of customers also looked back at him.

“I never thought we meant that much to people,” said Violas, who with Kate Nolan owns the restaurant. “Something really special happened here. I don’t think anyone thought it was over now.”

The restaurant opened at the South Main Street location in May 2014. Violas and his employees, many of whom arrived at the scene soon after the fire was reported at 5:25 a.m. Thursday, stayed until the fire was out several hours later. Firefighters from 10 departments battled the blaze while others filled in for them.

“The firemen were outstanding — those guys were terrific,” Violas said. “Nothing but respect.”

As fire investigators continue to determine what caused the early-morning fire Thursday that destroyed the restaurant, Violas said the long-term plan is to rebuild the restaurant at the site, hopefully, he said, by May 1, 2018.

Getting to that point is where the difficulty lies. During the summer months — uber peak season for a Canandaigua restaurant by the lake — Nolan’s employs over 100 people, with about 25 to 30 of them full-time workers.

“Nolan’s is going to be OK,” Violas said. “The question is, how do we take care of our employees until we’re open?”

Some of the full-timers will be absorbed at Nolan’s at the Canandaigua Country Club until summer’s end. The catering division also will continue to run.

Folks from other local restaurants, including Eric’s Office, Peppers, Jose and Willy’s and Casa de Pasta — competitors, yes, but friends more — have not only reached out to offer services, but also offered employment, when possible.

Joe Caito, chef at Casa de Pasta, said he thought he was dreaming when he heard the news Thursday.

“Anything they need from me, they have it,” Caito said. “They’re great people, hard workers, honest — they’re good people.”

The outpouring of prayers and support from fellow restaurant owners, customers and others in the community is genuine and appreciated, Violas said.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m not surprised by it. We always take care of each other. That’s just what we do,” Violas said. “What else can you say? Thank you. If they need help from me, you got it.”