A gas fire that set off the sprinklers wasn't the grand opening an Indian business owner had hoped for in Whangarei's Strand Arcade.

Firefighters converged on the Strand Arcade in the central city about midday after fire alarms sounded and caused a mass evacuation of business owners, workers and customers.

Many punters ordering their lunches at various eateries were left empty handed and waiting on the footpath as firefighters checked the scene.

Spice Traders owner Raj Raghavan was bitterly disappointed at the closure of his business on their first day of trading. He said they had been open on Sunday but were not fully fledged and yesterday was to be their grand opening.


"This is such a bad start for us but at least no one was injured."

He said he had chefs cooking and another staff member was serving a customer when the explosion occurred.

Mr Raghavan said he would be making enquiries with those who had been involved with the building of the business.

A customer being served at the time of the explosion said about two seconds after he had been handed his masala dosa by the Indian lady behind the counter there was a loud whoosh coming from the kitchen area.

"It sounded like a water pipe bursting and within a second there was a flash of flames coming from the kitchen area. At this the three people, two men and one woman in the store, ran out of the front," he said.

Mall security cleared everybody out of the arcade while 111 was called.

Merv Williams, who manages the Strand Arcade, said it was lucky no one was injured. He said the business was going through a recertification process and it was likely to be serving up food today.

Whangarei fire safety investigator Craig Bain said cooking oil on a gas stove in the kitchen of the outlet had ignited, which then activated the sprinkler system.

The sprinkler system then did exactly what it was designed to do and extinguished the fire.

Firefighters isolated the gas and two teams of firefighters and an operational support crew helped with the clean up of water that had spread through into McDonald's adjoining Spice Traders.

It was only 30 minutes before most of the shops were reopened.