‘I didn’t believe it,” Ann Tussey said, remembering back to the morning of Oct. 9, 2017, when she and her husband, Dennis, realized the Tubbs fire had reduced their beloved Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar to ashes and molten metal.
The fire took with it nearly six years of the couple’s hard work, their livelihoods and jobs for their 71 employees. Tussey still seems surprised by the events of that night, even speaking about it 14 months later.
“It couldn’t be gone,” she said of their original restaurant, a favorite for Southern-style comfort food in the Fountaingrove neighborhood. “You can’t just lose an entire shopping center in a matter of hours. And not just the restaurant, but the entire neighborhood that was our extended family.”
But now, sitting in the shell of the new Sweet T’s being built in Windsor, Tussey credits that shock with the couple’s quick decision to rebuild. Trauma, she thinks, propelled them forward as they sought hope amid the horror. Today, she admits, had she and Dennis thought more clearly, and known how complicated the undertaking would be, they might have walked away.
“I’m not even frustrated anymore,” she said of dealing with near-endless insurance confusion, financial panic and construction challenges that accompanied the rebuild effort at a new site. “Exhausted, stressed, guilty we couldn’t do more for our staff … but (we’re) finally at peace with the process.”
Originally, the Tusseys had planned to reopen by late summer 2018, having quickly found new space in a former Denny’s in Windsor’s Lakewood Village. The building bore a sign reading “Restaurant Ready,” Tussey recalled, and they were thinking it might be as easy as when they opened their first Sweet T’s in the former Santi restaurant space in Fountaingrove Village.
“We signed the lease and got access to the Santi space in July 2011, and we were open by November,” Ann recalled of the four-month time frame it took them to open the original Sweet T’s. “I think that gave us a false sense of a timeline.
Like many other Northern California wildfire victims, the Tusseys discovered after the fact that they were underinsured. A series of recent improvements, including a $100,000 covered patio and a new $25,000 barbecue smoker, hadn’t been added to their policy, she said.
“Well, that was the last of that,” said Tussey. “It was one of those things on my list to do, but we never got around to it.”
The couple applied for a Small Business Administration disaster loan, a low-interest, long-term program for losses not fully covered by insurance. “People told us it happens really fast, is easy to get done,” Tussey said. “But we applied November 16, and only got funded this October 27.”
All this time, the Tusseys had been juggling funds, pulling from their $451,000 insurance settlement to pay pre-fire bills from food vendors and other suppliers, plus to retain other critical staff they would need to reopen, including their longtime pitmaster, George Ah Chin.
To date, they have already spent almost $400,000 on new equipment and other hard expenses.
The couple also needed to buy out an original investor who couldn’t be involved anymore, a change that also meant applying for a new Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license, costing yet more time and money.