Sponsored by Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar
Ask Ann Tussey what motivated her to start Southern-style Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar, and she’ll tell you it was her husband’s love of Southern barbecue.
She is the co-owner, chef and managing partner behind Sweet T’s, the family-owned and operated Windsor restaurant and the winner of the Best of the North Bay’s Best Restaurant and Best Fried Chicken categories for Sonoma County.
Ann is a charming, friendly Southerner who cajoles clients and teases staff and will pose in a selfie with you. She was born in Virginia but grew up in Arkansas. She also lived in Mississippi, New York and finally Georgia, where she worked in mortgage banking–a career path she had chosen when restaurant work proved unconducive to raising a child. This is where she met her future husband, Dennis Tussey, the inspiration behind Sweet T’s.
A Southern Californian with a 30 year career in mortgage banking, Dennis relocated to Sonoma County in 1983. Ann and her daughter, Megan, joined Dennis in Sonoma County in 2004.
In 2008, the economy went into a recession, particularly affecting the mortgage business, which was the impetus for starting Sweet T’s.
In 2011, Dennis suggested starting a Southern restaurant because of his fondness for chopped-pork barbecue, lima beans and all the other familiar accompaniments he experienced while working in Georgia.
Ann was skeptical that Nor Cal wine lovers and foodies would welcome such humble food and drink, but they found a beautiful ready-to-go spot in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Sweet T’s opened its doors in November 2011 serving southern favorites such as Memphis-style BBQ, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, catfish and other Southern favorites. Similar to the more elegant restaurants of Savannah and Charleston, Sweet T’s also offered a full bar with an extensive bourbon and whiskey collection, a requirement of Dennis’s.
Their customer base grew tremendously through word of mouth as their neighbors on the hill began to share their neighborhood restaurant with friends and family. “Customers used to say, ‘I tell everybody about this place!’ Once we became busy, they started jokingly saying, ‘I’m not telling anybody else about this place; y’all are too busy! I can never get in.’”
The name Sweet T’s was in part to evoke the notion of sweet tea, often the beverage of choice throughout the South. Ann jokes, “When the staff asks me if the sweet tea is sweet enough, I tell them it’s sweet enough if your lips stick together.”
Sweet T’s is also a reference to Dennis’s demeanor–and the first initial of his last name. Ann’s late mother, Carol, originally from North Carolina, referred to Dennis as “Mr. T” and thought he was “the sweetest man in the world.”
They miss their original location and neighbors in Fountaingrove, but the new location in Windsor has proven to be a great second home after the Tubbs Fire. While Ann loved the charm of the original Sweet T’s, it was a lot of fun working with designers Mark Wilson and Yoko Ishihara to redesign the former Denny’s space into something “straight out of San Francisco.”
They reopened in their new Windsor location on March 7, 2019, and have been busy ever since. Their team includes local legend George Ah Chin and a lot of the original “OG’s” from Fountaingrove, much to their regulars’ delight. They’ve also recently hired a new GM, Summer Hamilton, and Director of Operations, Todd Philips, who’ve both recently relocated from Savannah, Georgia. Their backgrounds are in hospitality, and their focus at the moment is revamping the wine list to include more small-production wineries that are focused on sustainable farming and growing practices.
Also new on the horizon, next door to its Windsor location, Sweet T’s is opening its take out operation “Sweet T’s On The Fly”. Featuring an a la carte menu, as well as weekly specials exclusive to the counter service eatery, they will also be offering bottled wine, a selection of bottled craft cocktails, and bbq rubs.
“Restaurants are more than a place to eat,” Ann said, describing the pleasure she and her staff get from seeing the expressions on customers’ faces when they’re enjoying the food. “We love what we do, and we love to eat. Hopefully that comes through in the food. ”
What’s the secret to Sweet T’s often-honored fried chicken? Ann characterized it as having a crispy outside and a moist, juicy inside. A lot of people love buttermilk fried chicken, but growing up, Ann remembers her mom cooking chicken in a cast iron skillet. That’s the inspiration behind their fried chicken.
“I tell my staff you’re only as good as the last plate of food you served. You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to care every single day and always put your best foot forward. And that way of thinking has paid off. Our customer base has grown extensively over the years through word of mouth. We’re thankful for that, and for the diverse community that we’re part of.”
Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar, 9098 Brooks Road, South, Windsor, open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 707- 687-5185, SweetTsSouthern.com.