Read more about the recovery from the 2017 North Bay wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

This story originally appeared in PressDemocrat, another publication in the Sonoma Media Investments network.

‘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.

Read more about the recovery from the 2017 North Bay wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

This story originally appeared in PressDemocrat, another publication in the Sonoma Media Investments network.

Tussey said their insurance company wasn’t “thinking about how you actually open a restaurant.”

“I understand, but at the same time, I knew what we needed to do. So now you start borrowing from the insurance money to pay people to keep the project moving,” she said. “One day we had to move money from our personal account, and I thought, there’s 20 bucks here. I haven’t had this little money since I was 18.”

With the SBA funds in hand, progress is now easier, but construction struggles have the Tusseys hoping for a February opening at the soonest. Simply determining a build-out budget remains a work in progress, because since the fires, many material costs have tripled, according to Tussey and her contractors. So many people are rebuilding that vendors are allocating plywood, wallboard, wood and other necessities. Anything available is often on lengthy back-order too.

“Nobody stocks anything these days, and they can’t commit to delivery times,” she said. “Like our walnut for trim, chairs, fabric or mirrors, everything is made when you order it. And to order it, you have to put the 50 percent down, with money we don’t have. We’ve had to make a budget ourselves, and we’re already at $350 to $450 a square foot, right in line with other commercial rebuilds we found.”

Ultimately, their insurance company has been coming through with most extra expenses, though that’s another complicated accounting process. The Tusseys must first pay for items, then submit receipts to get reimbursed. So the Tusseys have been juggling priorities — figuring a chicken cooker will take six weeks to arrive, so that can wait behind flooring, and then maneuvering their credit line to pay bills between reimbursements.

“Part of the reason we’re not open is because insurance is pushing back, and I get it. But I’ve never been through this before,” Tussey said. “This is their business. I told them,‘I take full responsibility for not being adequately insured; that’s no one’s fault but mine. I’m not blaming you for that. But if the policy covers, I am asking you to do what the policy allows. If I need to get a loan to finish it, then I’ll get a loan and I’ll deal with that. But somebody tell me what to do.’”

Meanwhile, the Sweet T’s Facebook page continues to blow up with comments from near-cult faithful customers anxious for a reopening. The Tusseys launched a hiring fair Dec. 10, and continue to work around the clock for what they want more than anyone else: their restaurant reborn.

“We said from the beginning that we’re moving ahead because we don’t know what else to do,” Tussey said. “We’ve had to figure all this out on our own. Things are literally not within our control. And we want to open right.”