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Benson’s Wild Dogs restaurant was badly damaged by a fire early Friday morning.

BENSON — Investigators are saying that a fire that destroyed Wild Dogs restaurant early Friday morning appears to be arson.

“Evidence at the scene has led us to the conclusion that the fire was intentionally set,” said Benson Police Chief Paul Moncada. “We are following up on leads we have received, or discovered, and the investigation is ongoing.”

The fire started sometime around 2 a.m. Friday.

Benson Fire Chief Keith Spangler said the fire department investigated the cause and origin of the blaze, found it to be suspicious, and then contacted Benson PD detectives for further investigation.

“This is a potential criminal investigation,” said Spangler, who thanked Mescal and Pomerene fire departments and Health Care Innovations for assisting.

The fire’s cause and origin will be announced once police detectives complete the investigation, Spangler said.

Located at 1020 W. Fourth St., Wild Dogs was a popular Benson eatery owned by Scott and Gail Badeker.

“My sister lives in Benson, and every time I visited from Tucson, we would go here,” said customer Wayno Guerrini. “We even took our 90-year-old mom there ... Occasionally, I would bring neighbors in Tucson down for hot dogs. I hope they will rebuild.”

In July 2018 Wild Dogs was recognized by Money magazine as one of the 10 best places in the country for a hot dog. Known for its Vienna all-beef hot dogs, varied menu, friendly service and roadside charm, Scott said he and Gail strived to create a family-friendly establishment with a fun atmosphere.

“Our goal was to be the place that our customers deserved,” he said. “I feel that we earned every customer and treated every single day like our first day in business, because it could be our last.”

When asked about plans for reopening the business, Badeker responded with, “It’s too soon to know what we’re going to do. We’re still licking our wounds. This was a nice little place and I know we’re going to miss it.”

Including the Badekers, the fire caused six people to lose their jobs.

When the Badekers started Wild Dogs, they operated out of a 24-foot trailer for 7½ years. Two years ago they purchased the building that once housed Rebs Cafe & Coffee Shop.

Benson artists Sharon and Doug Quarles also had serious losses because of the blaze, as their art gallery is attached to the building.

“A dividing wall between the restaurant and this space we were in actually protected about 60% of our artwork,” Doug Quarles said. “We’re going to have to go through everything and get a better idea of the overall damage, but considering how devastating this fire was, I think we’re pretty lucky.”

Doug and Sharon Quarles have decided to walk away from the damaged building, and will not be reestablishing a gallery in that same location.

“We’re very sad for Scott and Gail,” Sharon Quarles said. “They had a wonderful restaurant and have lost everything. Wild Dogs was very popular and this is a huge loss to the community.”