During a soft opening for Sweet T's in Windsor, Monday, March 4, 2019 server Hayley Louzao delivers food to customers. Sweet T's was destroyed during the Tubb's fire as it roared over Fountaingrove and into Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
As Dennis and Ann Tussey sifted through the burned wreckage of their Fountaingrove restaurant after the 2017 wildfires, the one thing they knew for sure — maybe the only thing — was that they’d reopen.
When and where were still up in the air, but the dream of welcoming longtime customers, friends and family back to their restaurant, Sweet T’s, would become their driving force over the last 17 months.
After more than $1 million in renovations to a former Denny’s in Windsor, their restaurant will finally reopen Thursday (March 7) in its new home.
“It took us a couple months just to get our minds around what we could do, but it was never a question in our mind that we would reopen,” Dennis Tussey said Friday as hundreds of well-wishers poured into the space for a preview.
The couple secured a lease in a shopping center on Brooks Road South in Windsor soon after the fires. Though the opening date was pushed back several times from summer 2018 to fall, and finally to March, the preview was both a homecoming and closure to many painful memories of the fire.
“Tonight was like a family reunion rather than opening a restaurant,” said Tussey. “These are customers who helped us rebuild. Now, we finally get to see them again in a normal environment.”
Lines queued around Tussey throughout the night as he gave hugs and handshakes to fans of the original restaurant. As he made his way through the room, he pointed out myriad features of the new space — the smoker, the wrap-around porch and the hundreds of small details he and Ann had carefully considered in the rebuild.
Insurance money from the fires covered the cost of renovating the 3,700-square-foot restaurant in Windsor, according to Tussey. The large bar area, spacious tables and enclosed outdoor dining space make it feel larger, though Tussey said the footprint is exactly the same as the Fountaingrove location.
“It took us a little longer than we imagined. The remodel was much more extensive than we understood,” said Tussey. “I think it’s going to be a better location. (Fountaingrove) was special, but for visibility this is better. It’s new, the decor is even more attractive.”
Longtime customer Joyce Coletti, who lost her home on Vintage Circle in the fires, was emotional when discussing why she and her husband Ed attended the preview.
“We came by a couple weeks ago and Ann (Tussey) was here. It felt like ‘Oh, it’s okay now,’” she said, gently touching her hands to her heart and smiling. “She knows what it’s like for us.”
“It was a mutual love fest,” said her husband. He added that their dog, Sam, was probably the one who most missed the old restaurant. “George used to feed him scraps,” he said of the longtime Sweet T’s pitmaster. The couple relocated to a quiet cul-de-sac in the Junior College neighborhood, but still miss what they refer to as their “home” just behind the old restaurant.
Wes Shirley sat with his wife and other regulars in a booth with nibbles of new and old menu items piled on the table including pork nachos, tri tip, mac and cheese and fried chicken sliders. Shirley, who said he visited the old restaurant two to three times a week, also lost a home in the fires.
“We ate everything off the old menu because it was comforting,” he said. “Thank goodness they are back.”
Tussey said that customers demanded they keep the Southern-inspired menu the same, with richly smoked and barbecued meats, creamy mac and cheese, shrimp grits, fried chicken and key lime pie. Additions to the menu include beef sliders.
“I’m so beyond excited for the two of them who have worked so hard to put this back together,” said Dennis Tussey’s daughter, Jennifer Tussey, who attended the opening with her husband. “Seeing photos of them (Dennis and Ann) viewing the old property shows how affected they were. There was a lot of thought, and they considered quite a few different directions.”
Kenneth Minton said he celebrated several birthdays and special occasions at the former location and was planning to bring his sister, who lives out of town, to the new restaurant for her favorite fried chicken sandwich. “Windsor is really gaining something. We had my sister’s farewell dinner here because she wanted their fried chicken. She’s already told me her order when she comes back home,” said Minton, who lives in Windsor.
As someone who knows the heartbreak of losing a restaurant, Tussey said restaurateurs in the Barlow and west Sonoma County who lost their businesses in last week’s flood face a difficult road ahead.
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“My heart just goes out to them. If you have the wherewithal just get back open,” he said.
When the restaurant originally opened in 2009, not everyone thought rich, Southern comfort food would appeal to Sonoma County residents. Lily Akimoff of Santa Rosa, who is also an investor in the restaurant, said she originally thought the Tusseys were crazy for having a restaurant in a food culture “where everyone eats rabbit food.”
“To see their success has blown us away. It seems like a sad thing has turned into a beautiful thing. They’ve gotten even better, and the number of people here tonight is a testament to that,” Akimoff said Friday.