Lunchtime patrons at Za’s Italian Café on East University Avenue were treated to a surprise yesterday, when a fire in the building’s basement forced the evacuation of the restaurant and the neighboring In-N-Out Pizza convenience store.

Robert Vogel, a battalion chief in the Ann Arbor Fire Department, said the fire, reported at about 12:45 p.m., was caused by combustibles – specifically, a plastic cooler and towels – left too close to the water heater. Reka Farrackand, an Ann Arbor fire inspector, said the burning cooler was responsible for the thick black smoke that filled the building.

The second floor of the building houses offices and a ballet studio, which were also evacuated.

There was extensive smoke damage throughout the building.

The fire was discovered by Za’s employee Bo Stover, an LSA senior, who said he was taking out the trash when he saw smoke coming out of the basement from under the door.

“The smoke was pouring out of the basement,” Za’s manager Renee Marino said.

Stover told Marino about the smoke as soon as he saw it. She immediately called the fire department and evacuated the restaurant, which was about 75 percent full because of the lunch rush.

“We’re lucky it didn’t happen at night,” Vogel said. “The whole building would have gone up in flames.”

LSA freshman and Za’s employee Jennifer Elledge said she continued cleaning tables after she heard about the fire.

“I wasn’t sure if it was serious or not at first,” she said. Elledge and other employees then helped customers box up their meals.

Several flammable items – including cleaning agents and paper products – were stored in the basement, but Vogel said the basement sprinkler prevented the fire from spreading.

Building manager Myrna Kweit was upstairs in her office when Marino told her the building needed to be evacuated.

“I saw the fire trucks coming down the street, never dreaming it was our building,” Kweit said. “I’m glad the fire trucks got here as fast as they did.”

Firefighters extinguished the fire in fewer than 10 minutes.

In-N-Out reopened at 6 p.m. last night, 15 minutes after receiving approval from an Ann Arbor Department of Health inspector.

Marino said restaurant managers aren’t sure when Za’s will reopen but will try to make that decision sometime this morning.

“Everything needs to be cleaned to get rid of the smoke,” she said.

The café’s cleanup will be more time-intensive than the four-hour effort to clean In-N-Out. The Department of Agriculture needs to approve the reopening.

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