WHEN Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, siblings and co-owners of the Summerhouse restaurant, decided to open a second location for the business in 2020, they ran head-on into the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis resulted in them shutting down their original location at the Liguanea Club in Kingston where they were only concessionaires and focusing on the new restaurant at the Harmony Hall heritage site in Ocho Rios, St Ann, where they had equity.
Hampered by curfews and shutdowns they pressed on, regardless. But unlike many restaurants that pivoted to takeout and delivery during the outbreak, they continued to focus on creating and delivering an experiential dining atmosphere which was at the heart of their business model.
"Old World, gracious West Indian hospitality is what we're trying to recreate," Michelle Rousseau explained. "This idea of sitting on a veranda at your grandmother's house in the country having a long leisurely lunch. So we had a lot of traffic down there during lockdown just because we were largely an outdoor venue. The problem was that it was kind of erratic."
It is no surprise that the siblings stuck to their guns in preserving their business model. Their commitment to the experience of heritage, culture and cuisine in the West Indies goes far beyond the restaurant business. For the better part of over 20 years they have received accolades, recognition and acknowledgement for establishing a prominent culinary presence through various avenues, including restaurants, catering, television shows, historical research, and writing aiming to codify a distinct and sought-after Caribbean style.
Their critically acclaimed cookbooks Caribbean Potluck: Modern Recipes from our Family Kitchen followed by Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking, signify their dedication to preserving and highlighting the diverse culinary heritage of the region. The first cookbook was on NPR's List of Best Books of 2014 while the second was listed among the best cookbooks of 2018 by The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, Epicurious and Serious Eats.
While the core of the Summerhouse business model remained the same, the move from Kingston to Ocho Rios still brought changes.
"The business model in Kingston was very much built around the members club concept which is very corporate, urban, local and it was kind of like a breakfast, lunch, dinner, bar menu, bar snack, and geared for the corporate community and people who would be in the area and in the vicinity," Rousseau revealed. "We have had a very solid local business for a number of years, especially in corporate and stuff, so that was a natural transition for us."
"What we decided when we went to Ocho Rios was that that exact model was not a fit because this felt much more coastal Caribbean," she continued. "So whereas Kingston had this urban, Old World members club kind of feel, this for us was 'OK, this is south of France, this is al fresco dining, this is leisurely meals in an outdoor setting'. And that's kind of why we added that tagline 'simple food meant to be shared'.
"Because it was almost like we had transitioned from this breakfast where you had corporate people coming for meetings and luncheons to this kind of all-day menu that opened at 12:30 and then went till 10 o'clock at night, where people would just swing by to eat largely from [what] we expected [would be] villas and EP hotels in the area, but what turned out to be a respite for Jamaicans at a level we did not expect, which could have been driven by COVID."
This resulted in bookings of 80-100 people for brunch with diners coming not just from the surrounding area but from as far away as places across the island like Kingston, Mandeville and Portland.
The tourism market was slower to pick up initially due to the difficulties of COVID. The challenge also lay in attracting tourists staying in the luxury villas and all-inclusive hotels to dine at the restaurant instead of utilising their in-house services.
About 80 per cent of Summerhouse's business comes from the local market but the restaurant has managed to strike up a good relationship with particular hotels such as Jamaica Inn and Golden Eye from whom they receive a significant number of guests.
"We have a Dine Around programme with Jamaica Inn where they get a meal credit and so they just come with a voucher and Jamaica Inn pays us after," Rousseau disclosed. "And Golden Eye has been incredibly supportive. They send people all the time."
"And then we have done a lot of events [locally]," she added. "It has interestingly been that sweet spot of like 20 to 50 people or 40 people, small rehearsal dinners, girlfriends, brunches and birthdays. But then also places like Golden Eye or Jamaica Inn that may have a wedding and send groups over."
With COVID now behind them, the Rousseau sisters say they are focused on the future with plans to strengthen the restaurant's presence, making it as active during weekdays as it is on weekends, while remaining true to the key elements of the business.
And what are those elements?
"Experience and attention to detail," Rousseau replied without hesitation. "Luxury, but luxury that is not about an amenity. Luxury that is about how someone greets you on the phone or how the plate is presented to you. And I don't mean it is the fanciest plate. It may be a simple plate. It's the experience of luxury."
"What is luxury and how you define it, I think, is different for everybody," she continued. "I think that Jamaica is filled with luxurious experiences that we negate. Eating fresh food or picking fresh fruit straight from a tree and eating it. That's luxurious. There are a lot of people in the world who have never even seen a mango on a tree or an avocado.
So, I think for us it is really about the detail and the nuance and the subtlety. It is about the experience but it is also about the refinement in the experience because that's what makes it luxurious and memorable."
And behind the scenes there is another theme that is no less important for the journey ahead, as it has been through all the business ventures from past to present â€” sisterhood.
"I think for Suzanne and I, as sisters and business partners, we have a mutual respect for each other's gifts and talents," said Rousseau. "I would say we collaborate together but then we allow each person to take their space and do what they need to do to develop their piece of the whole. We were told once that it's like I am the wizard that brings it in and she's a magician that anchors it because we have very different working styles, but we work very well together and we do different things in the business, and we kind of focus on different parts, but it tends to come together."
Sisterhood also means sharing similar values that their parents exposed them to such as treasuring experiences and cultural exposure, supporting each other as siblings and taking risks to achieve their goals. This upbringing has brought unity of focus and vision.
"We've always made a commitment that a yes is a yes, a no is a no, and a maybe is a no," Rousseau related. "So if we're doing a project and she is a yes and I am a maybe then it's a no. We don't argue about those types of things. We don't allow petty things to get in between the relationship."
This is the foundation on which Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau have built a successful partnership and on which Summerhouse will continue to grow along with all their other projects that delve into the style, culture, and identity of the Caribbean from a culinary perspective.