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Sweet T’s Makes a Sweet Return After Burning Down in Tubbs Fire

After more than $1 million in renovations to a former Denny’s in Windsor, Sweet T's finally reopens this week.

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.”

Of the handful of restaurants that were destroyed in the wildfires, Tussey’s is the first to reopen, a fact he’s proud of. Willi’s Wine Bar, which also perished in the 2017 fires, is slated to reopen in the Town & Country Shopping Center in east Santa Rosa in early May. Others do not yet have timelines or will not reopen.

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. 

 “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.

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4 thoughts on “Sweet T’s Makes a Sweet Return After Burning Down in Tubbs Fire

  1. Soft opening at Sweet T’s with my partner in “Dine” John Ash 03/04/19

    Where is it? Wait I see it over there…. wow beautiful. We walked in and the place was alive with activity, there was a sign at the door saying Private event closed to the public, I felt very special to be there last night. Everything was shiny and vibrated, electric with excitement. I felt like I was in Chicago or San Francisco or possibly Santa Monica.

    The fires had taken a lot from our town but not the spirit we share, the restaurant had been lost in the 2017 fires burnt like a piece of a charred brisket that fell to the bottom of the prized smoker and gone up in smoke and flames. This amazing and loved smoker was the only thing that made it through that horrific time. I felt the love when George the Pit Master dressed in his overalls took us through a tour of the kitchen and lastly to the smoker outside the back door. His face beamed as he spoke about how they cleaned and shined the smoker back to life.

    They seated John and me at a table where we could see into the kitchen and the open cold station. We of course loved the perfect birds’ eye view of the kitchen, our previous life’s sweat driven loved work. I went over curiously and chatted with the smiling faces at cold station; found they not only do the salads and desserts but there is a grill for grilling steak, sausage and other tasty meats was also located in this station. There is a welcoming out door-seated area also.

    The food was devilishly good as it has always been since they opened years ago. All your favorites and more! The menu was exactly what we expected a detailed and generous selection of the loved dishes of the restaurant we all had learned to love when it was located “up the hill”. John stated they could charge more for this delicious comfort food but I said no this is perfect they will do a great business and everyone can enjoy their offerings, from families to date night. I would feel comfortable coming and seating at the bar for a drink and dinner on my own. Love it!

    Honored we embarked a tour by George the “Pit Master” from Hawaii as he smiled his infectious smile as he explained how they had rescued the shiny smoker after the fires. He chatted on about their combos of rubs and salts holding them like they were jewels and someone scooped corn muffins in a muffin tin which I was about to enjoy, when we were to finally break away to go back to our table to enjoy our meal. We wanted to continue enjoying the stories and adventures of this happy Hawaiian for the entire night.

    The nachos with the perfectly smoked succulent brisket was out of the world, smothered with a white cheese sauce, a drizzle of this sweet BBQ sauce and jalapenos. I thought what the hell is white cheese sauce when John ordered it but the combo of taste with the white cheese sauce and the slightly sweet BBQ sauce was delightful. The brisket was perfect and I rest my case.

    Moving on to the main course fried chicken, grits and Cole slaw. I have never been a grits kind of gal but I am converted to the church of grits n BBQ and singing hallelujah at the top of my lungs. Thanks Leonard Cohen may you rip.

    It was an almost perfect evening the only thing that would have it perfect would be if they had added a cherry in my old fashion. I asked the server (she was super nice and helpful) why they did not have a cherry in my bourbon old fashion as this is the cherry on top for me so to speak. The server asked the bartender why or should I say mixologist. Apparently, the bartender was the head or the lead of the bartenders the big kahuna because she was well schooled and read on these kinds of questions. The mixologist explained as she was throwing and heaving metal shakers with both arms as if she was doing a workout with weights. She only serves pre prohibition drinks and pre prohibition drinks never had fruit in them. Sleuth that I am now having the internet available to google the hell out of everything I of course googled pre prohibition drinks, sites saying just ask your grandmother……… and damn it she was right on some of the sites but I still love a cherry in old fashion but it has to be a black cherry.

    Ah I sometimes lament how I miss being “on the line”.

    As we left the owner, Dennis Tussey shook my hand as if we were old friends.

    Good Luck Dennis and Anne. I am sending you lots of business.

  2. Soft opening at Sweet T’s with my partner in “Dine” John Ash 03/04/19

    Where is it? Wait I see it over there…. wow beautiful. We walked in and the place was alive with activity, there was a sign at the door saying Private event closed to the public, I felt very special to be there last night. Everything was shiny and vibrated, electric with excitement. I felt like I was in Chicago or San Francisco or possibly Santa Monica.

    The fires had taken a lot from our town but not the spirit we share, the restaurant had been lost in the 2017 fires burnt like a piece of a charred brisket that fell to the bottom of the prized smoker and gone up in smoke and flames. This amazing and loved smoker was the only thing that made it through that horrific time. I felt the love when George the Pit Master dressed in his overalls took us through a tour of the kitchen and lastly to the smoker outside the back door. His face beamed as he spoke about how they cleaned and shined the smoker back to life.

    They seated John and me at a table where we could see into the kitchen and the open cold station. We of course loved the perfect birds’ eye view of the kitchen, our previous life’s sweat driven loved work. I went over curiously and chatted with the smiling faces at cold station; found they not only do the salads and desserts but there is a grill for grilling steak, sausage and other tasty meats was also located in this station. There is a welcoming out door-seated area also.

    The food was devilishly good as it has always been since they opened years ago. All your favorites and more! The menu was exactly what we expected a detailed and generous selection of the loved dishes of the restaurant we all had learned to love when it was located “up the hill”. John stated they could charge more for this delicious comfort food but I said no this is perfect they will do a great business and everyone can enjoy their offerings, from families to date night. I would feel comfortable coming and seating at the bar for a drink and dinner on my own. Love it!

    Honored we embarked a tour by George the “Pit Master” from Hawaii as he smiled his infectious smile as he explained how they had rescued the shiny smoker after the fires. He chatted on about their combos of rubs and salts holding them like they were jewels and someone scooped corn muffins in a muffin tin which I was about to enjoy, when we were to finally break away to go back to our table to enjoy our meal. We wanted to continue enjoying the stories and adventures of this happy Hawaiian for the entire night.

    The nachos with the perfectly smoked succulent brisket was out of the world, smothered with a white cheese sauce, a drizzle of this sweet BBQ sauce and jalapenos. I thought what the hell is white cheese sauce when John ordered it but the combo of taste with the white cheese sauce and the slightly sweet BBQ sauce was delightful. The brisket was perfect and I rest my case.

    Moving on to the main course fried chicken, grits and Cole slaw. I have never been a grits kind of gal but I am converted to the church of grits n BBQ and singing hallelujah at the top of my lungs. Thanks Leonard Cohen may you rip.

    It was an almost perfect evening the only thing that would have it perfect would be if they had added a cherry in my old fashion. I asked the server (she was super nice and helpful) why they did not have a cherry in my bourbon old fashion as this is the cherry on top for me so to speak. The server asked the bartender why or should I say mixologist. Apparently, the bartender was the head or the lead of the bartenders the big kahuna because she was well schooled and read on these kinds of questions. The mixologist explained as she was throwing and heaving metal shakers with both arms as if she was doing a workout with weights. She only serves pre prohibition drinks and pre prohibition drinks never had fruit in them. Sleuth that I am now having the internet available to google the hell out of everything I of course googled pre prohibition drinks, sites saying just ask your grandmother……… and damn it she was right on some of the sites but I still love a cherry in old fashion but it has to be a black cherry.

    Ah I sometimes lament how I miss being “on the line”.

    As we left the owner, Dennis Tussey shook my hand as if we were old friends.

    Good Luck Dennis and Anne. I am sending you lots of business.

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