Strangers raise over $128K to help Huntington Beach restaurant owner severely burned by butane heater

GoFundMe signs posted in front of VegiLicious restaurant's window.
A customer of VegiLicious restaurant in Huntington Beach started a GoFundMe account to help raise funds for owners Akira and Atsuko Nakao. On Jan. 19, Atsuko was severely burned from a butane gas heater while serving one of the patio tables.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

After suffering severe burns from the hip down, a Huntington Beach restaurant owner is slowly on her way to recovery and has hopes of returning to serve clientele again.

On Jan. 19, Atsuko ‘Ana’ Nakao worked a regular shift at VegiLicious, an organic vegetarian/vegan Japanese establishment, at the Huntington Harbour Mall. While her husband, Akira, cooked meals, she served patrons.

For the record:

12:51 p.m. Feb. 2, 2022This story has been corrected to reflect 2,000 donors have contributed to the Nakao’s GoFundMe account.

As she attended to a party sitting outside on the patio, her legs caught fire from a portable butane heater she had recently added to help keep patrons warm.

Her screams punctured the still evening.

“We both thought it was a fight,” said Jon Dorenbos, former National Football League long snapper who was seated on the patio at a nearby restaurant, Red Table, with his wife, Annalise.

The two were enjoying a date night. Before they were seated, Jon Dorenbos had grabbed a blanket from his car to keep Annalise warm as they dined al fresco on that chilly evening.

Not long after they settled in, they heard screams. They stood up and could see, from a distance of about 20 or 30 yards, Atsuko’s apron catch fire and engulf her on the VegiLicious patio.

Jon grabbed the blanket off Annalise and ran toward Atsuko. He took off his jacket and threw it over her head to try to protect her face. Then he wrapped her with the blanket. Another person called 911 and returned with a fire extinguisher.

“She kinda rolled out of the blanket and had no clothes,” he said. “It completely burned off her body. We did the best we could.”

Atsuko 'Ana' Nakao's legs are bandaged and wrapped with knee braces.
Atsuko ‘Ana’ Nakao’s legs were bandaged and wrapped with knee braces after an eight-hour surgery on Jan. 22.
(Akira Nakao)

Akira didn’t learn about the incident until the family Atsuko was serving ran inside to tell him. He remembers he was preparing a meal for a Doordash order when he heard the news.

“The customers told me, ‘Bring water, bring water,’” Akira said. When he went outside,“she was on the ground, and I saw her pants were about 80% burned out and then I realized she was in flames.”

Later that night, Akira shared the incident on their restaurant’s Facebook account. “Ana caught on fire and got her entire legs burnt badly,” he wrote. “She is hospitalized. Please pray for her early recovery. Thank you!”

The following morning, Nahoko Venezia, a customer, saw the news on social media and stepped up to help.

“I’ve lived in this country long enough to know the medical healthcare system is crazy,” she said. “It’s going to be an enormous amount of money, so I quickly thought I should set up [a] GoFundMe [drive].”

The Nakaos have limited insurance and anticipate their medical bill to range in the millions by the time Atsuko fully recovers. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than $128,000 had been raised toward a $2.5 million goal.

Venezia said she isn’t a regular at VegiLicious but grew fond of the owners because of their kindness and can relate to them because she’s also from Japan.

“Every time I’ve gone to dinner, Ana and Akira [have spent] a good time chatting with me,” she said.

Dorenbos, who had an 11-year NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, said he’s also remained in touch with Akira and is doing his best to help them financially.

The Nakaos operated a small café in Osaka before moving to Huntington Beach in 2006 when Akira was given an opportunity to work as a general manager at a Japanese BBQ restaurant.

By 2013, Akira quit that job and was inspired to help promote healthier eating by opening VegiLicious. Akira said it was tough staying afloat the first few years because vegan food wasn’t as popular as it has become. They remained open throughout the pandemic, as the restaurant is their only source of income.

Akira Nakao took a photo of his wife, Atsuko Nakao as she rested following surgery Jan. 26.
Akira Nakao took a photo of his wife, Atsuko Nakao, through the glass door to her hospital room as she rested following surgery Jan. 26.
(Akira Nakao)

It’s been about two weeks since their business was closed following the accident. Posters promoting the GoFundMe account are displayed on its front windows.

Akira visits his wife in the hospital every day for as long as he can. Surgeries to treat her third- and second-degree burns have been successful so far.

“She worries about the restaurant, but I tell her ‘Don’t worry, just focus on your treatment,’” Akira said.

The positive comments and messages left from patrons and strangers worldwide, offering condolences and brainstorming ways to help have lifted the couple’s spirits.

On Facebook, one person said: “I’m sure we can as a community come to help you with taking orders, serving, cleaning ... keeping the ship going.”

“We really appreciate those people’s help,” Akira said. “We never thought that many people, nearly 2,000 people can donate money for her injury. Most of them we don’t know.”

Depending on Atsuko’s recovery, Akira said she may be discharged in about two weeks.

He is sharing Atsuko’s journey on Facebook. On Jan. 22, he shared a picture post-surgery, showing her meal of miso soup and onigiri. Days later, he posted a video showing her feet, slowly flexing up and down.

On Jan. 26, he shared a photo of a calendar they ordered. The cover is a picture of the couple grinning and giving the “peace” sign.

“I just received 2022 Akira & Ana’s Calendar that Ana had ordered for me just before the accident,” he said. “Hope I can take a look at every page with her soon.”

To help with the couple’s expenses, visit

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