updated 5:20 p.m.
Prominent Nashville restaurateur Jay Luther, 47, was found dead Monday morning in a walk-in cooler at the Germantown Café East around 9:30 a.m.
The Metro Nashville Police Department said the initial investigation points to the death as an accident, as there were no indications of foul play. Luther was co-owner and chef of Germantown Café East as well as the original in Germantown.
An MNPD statement on Monday evening indicated that officers had been dispatched to the restaurant after a robbery alarm was triggered Sunday night. One sergeant and three officers checked on the business.
“When they arrived at the restaurant at 8:34 p.m., they found the building to be dark and all doors secure. A sign in the window gave notice that the business was closed due to a power outage. The officers spoke to a security guard at the 5th and Main property who said that the electricity had been restored prior to the police response,” the release stated. “Given that the restaurant was totally secured and closed, and given that electrical surges have been known to cause errant alarms, the officers elected not to force their way into the restaurant.”
Chief Steve Anderson has ordered a review of Sunday night's response.
Earlier on Monday, MNPD spokesman Don Aaron said a power outage occurred at the Fifth and Main building in East Nashville Friday. The restaurant had been closed for the weekend due to the outage, and management put dry ice in the cooler to preserve vegetables and other food.
Police believe when Luther went to check on the restaurant at some point Sunday evening the cooler door closed behind him and he became trapped inside.
Aaron said the dry ice might have caused carbon dioxide to displace oxygen in the room. So when Luther was locked in, he may have died from carbon dioxide poisoning. Aaron also said they found cardboard scraps on the scene that might have indicated that Luther attempted to break out. He didn’t have a cell phone on him.
Aaron said the locking mechanism on the cooler door was broken for some time.
MNPD is still investigating the case and hasn’t classified it yet. An autopsy is expected to be performed on Tuesday.
Luther opened Germantown Café with business partner Chris Lowry in North Nashville in 2003. Luther ran the back of the house as executive chef with co-owner Lowry running the front of the house as general manager. The duo opened Germantown Café East in the fall of 2011, replacing their original concept in the space, Allium, which launched in 2008.
Laura Wilson, a longtime Nashville chef who now heads the Grow Local Kitchen at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, remembered Luther fondly.
“Jay was a very talented chef,” Wilson said. “Chris [Lowry] and Jay took great chances in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Restaurateurs all over Nashville are grateful for his work.”