The owner of a much-loved harbour business destroyed by a fire has spoken of his "devastation" as he reveals it will take at least two years to reopen.
Peter Bennett, who runs the Crab & Winkle Restaurant and Whitstable Fish Market, told how it took four hours for the blaze to "completely and utterly ruin" almost 30 years of "hard graft".
Peter talking about his business being destroyed by the fire
In total, £60,000-worth of stock had to be thrown away following the blaze as the fire melted wiring, cutting off electricity supply to the building.
Reflecting on the harrowing day one month on, Mr Bennett, 75, said it was lucky nobody was seriously injured - or worse. His wife and staff were in the building in the moments before the blaze broke out.
"It was at 12pm when it started, which is when the restaurant opens," he said.
"The customers weren’t in there yet but there were queues downstairs waiting to come in.
"Staff were in the building and nobody came to tell us there was a fire next door. We found out because the place was full of smoke.
"We set the alarm off and got everyone out. If that had been a fully booked restaurant - especially the elderly who you see more of during the day when the kids are at school - the smoke going down the stairs would have choked them.
“I think a lot of them would have struggled to get out in good health. There could have been fatalities."
Mr Bennett, who served in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment for 22 years, was at a veteran meeting with former comrades when he received a text from his wife about the fire.
At the height of the blaze, smoke could be seen for miles, with plumes visible from Tankerton.
"I think Whitstable will be very much hurt to see the demise of the business," he said.
"During the fire, they couldn’t see what was happening as the cockle shed frame and roof was still there and they didn’t start ripping it down until the next day.
"Nobody knew the Crab & Winkle was destroyed from the fire."
Four inches of water flooded the first floor restaurant from where firefighters battled the flames - which has caused significant damage to the flooring and the fish market ceiling.
Rooms in the building were completely destroyed - with debris scattered everywhere.
Air conditioning units and water pipes are among parts of the building melted by the intense heat from the fire.
"In our main freezer we had bought lots of stock for the Jubilee holiday so it amounted to £30,000 of stock which we put in wheelie bins," Mr Bennett added.
"It was rotting as there is no electricity in the building as all the wires were melted in the fire.
“It would have diminished over the school holidays and Jubilee.
"It’s about four weeks of stock so it would have lasted all of June."
A total of 30 large commercial wheelie bins full of food and drink were chucked out.
Mr Bennett had worked at St Augustine's Fish Supplies Ltd from 1984. The business moved to Whitstable Harbour in 1990 - to the site where the fish market is today.
By 1994, he had bought the site - which was a "great big empty shed" at the time - and launched the Whitstable Fish Market. Then in 1999, the Crab & Winkle Restaurant opened above.
"I will never forget it because it was a massive achievement and we were full every day and evening," he said.
"We have always had fish sales which have been brilliant.
"The restaurant has been redesigned and I have spent £800,000 over the years reinvesting, which has brought it into modern times.
"We added a kitchen downstairs to cook cakes and we introduced a Wee Willie Winkle's fish and chip bar which was really busy. We used to have queues right down the harbour for that."
He told how his wife cried for two weeks following the fire, and he was "gutted".
And last Friday, he had to make the heartbreaking decision to make 14 of his staff redundant.
He believes it will be at least two years before the business can reopen.
"It was the heartbeat of Whitstable and you can tell by the amount of people who have tried to get on the bandwagon," he said.
"There was nothing in the harbour and it was only me doing business here for many years.
"I don’t mind sharing a bit but it went over-the-top. Three fish shops have opened in the town since I started and they have all closed down within the year because we have the business here.
"We were on a high and the restaurant was filling up every time it was open. Downstairs was busy with the shellfish, fish and chips, and coffee being sold. The tables and chairs out the front were full from 10am when we opened, right the way through.
"It was central to the kick-start of Whitstable."
The city council - which owns the building and is investigating the cause of the fire - has not given a cause yet and said it is still waiting for the forensic report from its insurers.
The council will be responsible for the repairs to the main structure of the Crab & Winkle Restaurant and fishing market building.
It will also be consulting with residents on the future use of the cockle shed site, which has since been demolished.
"There are no decisions yet on the long term future of the former cockle shed site," a spokesman said.
"This is a prime location and there needs to be a lot of consultation with residents on its future use. There is no timetable we can provide for this at the moment.
"We own the Crab and Winkle restaurant/fish market building and lease it out. Repairs to the main structure of this building are our responsibility and we are working with our insurer to get these underway as quickly as possible.
"We are about to appoint a consultant who specialises in dealing with the reinstatement of buildings following a fire.
"They will inspect the extent of the damage and produce a comprehensive schedule of repairs. Once complete, we will appoint a contractor to carry out the work."
The local authority had recently agreed a short-term use of the cockle shed building for the Whitstable Biennale art festival.
Organisers said the building was “at the heart” of their preparations, but the event went ahead earlier this month with some adjustments.