Start out with Southern-style “comfort food” and “feel-good" music performed by top-notch bands, toss in a "Bourbon Waffle" cocktail and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer; add two dashes of post-50 entrepreneurial spirit , serve it up in a newly renovated industrial-chic “warehouse” and what you have is the The Blue Rooster---Sarasota’s newest dining and live music venue.
Located at 1525 4th Street, a block north of Fruitville Road in downtown Sarasota, The Blue Rooster opened its doors to friends and family with a soft opening on Saturday, Jan. 5, with Radio Free Carmela & The Transmitters christening the wooden-floored performance stage while familiar faces sampled the food and drink.With little fanfare, the Rooster’s doors remained open the following evening, with Steve Arvey gracing the stage and the Herald-Tribune’s Scenetress making an impromptu appearance.
Two days later the doors opened again, this time “for real,” with New Jersey-based King Django, Miami-based Los Bastardos Magnificos and The Cadillac Grainer String Band dropping by to perform during the first week of operations.
All of this led up to the Thursday, Jan. 17 grand opening celebration featuring a 5 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, half-priced drink specials and live music by the David Smash Group.
The weekend to follow features the “jump and jive” blues-rock of Bradenton’s Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones on Friday night, the harmony-rich Americana sounds of Sarasota’s Passerine on Saturday night and bluesman Walker Smith on Sunday evening.
Looking ahead to the following week, the musical line-up includes Ted Stevens and the Doo-Shots on Thursday, Jan. 24, Selwyn Birchwood on Jan. 25, the Schmitz Brothers on Jan. 26 and Lauren Mitchell on Jan. 27.
There’s a $5 cover charge for Selwyn Birchwood and no cover for the rest of the aforementioned acts. Visit the beautiful Blue Rooster website (designed by Max Kelly) for performance times and additional details.
The Brains Behind The Rooster
The Blue Rooster is the brainchild of contractor, designer, bungalow builder and longtime Sarasota resident Devin Rutkowski and his business partner Bill Cornelius, a former Ford Motor Company purchasing agent, high school teacher and Michigan native.
Starting with the conceptual chords of “juke joint” and “blues bar”, the two “Head Roosters” reworked their culinary and cultural composition as it crystalized into something a little more upscale and more inclusive of other forms of traditional American music.
“I don’t know that there’s anything exactly like this, especially downtown,” Rutkowski said. “You can count on one hand the live ‘bars,’ but I don’t know about a "music venue’ where you have a professional house PA system, stage and lighting. And there isn’t another restaurant with a food menu like ours, focused on Southern specialties like collard greens, Fried Chicken & Waffles ($19.95) and Brunswick Stew ($11).”
“It’s a place where people can come and feel comfortable, with a friendly atmosphere, excellent food and original music,” said Cornelius. “I think the interior design is probably the nicest I’ve seen in Sarasota, with the 24-foot ceilings, the polished concrete floors, the mural of all the famous musicians and the barn wood. It’s just a magnificent venue in an intimate space.”
Cornelius owns the building that Blue Rooster shares with Darwin’s on 4th and Vin Cella, and he also owns the neighboring Station 400 building.He has been a silent partner in Darwin’s for the past year---an ongoing experience that provided him the opportunity to learn the restaurant business before taking on the active role he’s assumed at the Blue Rooster, where his duties include accounting, paying the bills and booking the bands.
“I learned a lot in the last year,” Cornelius said. “I understand the importance of providing good service, keeping your costs under control and providing a good experience for the customers.”
Employing the same marketing plan as Darwin’s, Cornelius said there are no plans to launch a paid advertising campaign. Instead, they plan to rely on social media and the Blue Rooster’s electronic newsletter.
“We really don’t have a marketing strategy,” he explained. “We want to appeal to the local residents through word of mouth. We want to make this a cool hangout for the people who live in Sarasota because they’re the ones that support you through the summertime.”
Attracting the seasonal snowbirds through reputation alone will serve as a welcome bonus.
“Yard Bird” and other Southern Comforts
Returning to the restaurant business for the first time since his high school days in Englewood, where he worked his way up from dishwasher to night cook, Rutkowski summed up the first week of operations as “hanging on for the ride.”
Assisted by Executive Chef Michael Yoder, Front House Manager Barbara Hopkins and lead bartender Kristen Orbino, Rutkowski will focus his energies on trying to make the kitchen, bar and service staff among the finest in town.
The Blue Rooster is a family affair, with Rutkowski’s daughter Amber and Cornelius’ daughter Allison as part of the service staff. Additional moral support will be provided by Devin’s wife Marian and Bill’s wife Ellen, who spend their days enriching young minds at the Rutkowski-owned Discovery Days Preschool.
The Blue Rooster vision stems in part from a fried chicken recipe Rutkowski’s been serving friends and family for years. With culinary input from Chef Yoder, the never frozen “yard bird” is available with or without the Belgian Waffle, with the Fried Chicken Dinner selling for $16 to $23 depending on the portion size.
While formulating their concept, Rutkowski and Cornelius traveled to blues festivals, juke joints and Southern restaurants throughout the Delta region and Southeastern United States.The resulting menu includes the “Pride of the Delta Catfish,” served with smothered collard greens ($16); “Tennessee Shrimp and Grits” served over stone-ground Anson Mills white cheddar grits ($21); and “Applewood Smoked Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf,” served with skin-on Yukon Smashed Potatoes and a portabello demi-glace ($19).
The 9 oz. Flank Steak is seasoned and glazed with chipotle, chargrilled with parsnip purée and served with steak fries ($23).
Sandwich lovers can turn to “The Dixie Burger” ($9) or the seasonal and market-priced Fresh Fish Sandwich.
Side dishes include “Minted Cajun Cole Slaw,” “TBR Succotash” and Southern Baked Beans.
The “Southern Snacks” starters menu features “Crazy Cajun Shrimp ($12); Fried Green Tomatoes ($7); “Crispy Chicken N’ Biscuit Sliders” ($9) and “Macaroni and Cheese au Gratin,” made with sharp cheddar and smoked Gouda ($7).
The “Sassy Southern” dessert menu includes Red Velvet Cake ($6), Maple Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie ($7), Buttermilk Pie, Layered Coconut Cake and an “Authentic Belgian Waffle ($5).”
The “Lil' Chicks” menu offers youngsters a choice of a Slider Burger, chicken tenders or Mac and Cheese, all served with a “small side,” garnished with apple slices, celery sticks and ranch dressing.
The late-night menu caters to the more modest desires of night owls and nocturnal types and Feb. 3 will mark the debut of the Sunday Gospel Brunch.
Belly Up to the Bar, Ladies and GentsThe Southern theme continues at the L-shaped bar, where the specialty cocktails include the “Bourbon Waffle,” made with maple-flavored Crown Royal, fresh lemon and a cinnamon stick garnish ($10); the classic Mint Julep, the gin-based “New Orleans Fizz,” the tequila-based “Agave Kiss” and the “Southern Bloody,” a Bulleit bourbon-based Bloody Mary.
Bottled wines produced by Lucky Star, Pedroncelli, Cambira Vineyards and Kendall-Jackson sell from $24 to $45, with single glasses priced between $6 and $11.
Bottled and canned beer offerings include Magic Hat, Grolsch, and Lazy Pecan ($4.50-$5), with domestics starting at $3.75 and including old-school favorites PBR and Schlitz.
The craft/draft beer menu includes the Cigar City Jai Alai IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Old Chub and Intuition selling for five or six bucks.
Offering discounted drink prices, the Blue Rooster Happy Hour happens seven days week from 5 to 7 p.m.
Music Makes the Rooster CrowCornelius’s philosophy of booking bands is based on high-caliber local bands performing original music, supplemented by touring bands and establishing a weekly pattern of musical genres that give patrons an idea of what to expect on a given night.
Starting in February, Doug Demming and Come Back Alice (“funky jam-rock”) will alternate on Thursday nights, with “uptempo” bands on Friday nights, local Americana bands on Saturday nights and acoustic blues on Sunday evenings.
Cornelius is going experiment with Andrew LaCroix hosting a jazz jam on Monday nights and a blues jam on Tuesdays to see if those take off.
Neighbors in the NOF
It’s been said a million times that “location, location, location” is key to a new business' success. Positioned a block north of Fruitville Road, between Orange and Lemon avenues and just north of the Rosemary District, the Blue Rooster is part of an emerging scene known as the North of Fruitville (NOF) district that includes Darwin’s on 4th, Station 400, Vin Cella, Savory Street, Balance Health and Fitness, WSLR community radio, Ampersand Construction and others.
The plan is to market the NOF through special events and other promotional opportunities designed to make the community aware of the dining, entertainment, shopping, business and cultural alternatives that exist north of Main Street.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Rutkowski said. “It’s the only place downtown that has an abundance of vacant, re-developable land so the opportunity is staring us in the face---and you can walk here from downtown in seven minutes.”
The Final Touches
The Blue Rooster provides free wi-fi, so feel free to bring your laptop or tablet along, where they’ll feel at home with the few flat-screen TVs that allow sports fans to follow their favorite teams.
There is limited street parking on 4th St. in front of the Blue Rooster, additional parking in the vacant lot across the street and more parking at Station 400, where valet parking is provided during peak evening hours.
The Blue Rooster is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays and 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with lunch and Sunday brunch service starting in February.
In Blue, A Dream Comes True
Reflecting on how it felt on Jan. 5 to see their dream come to life in front of friends and loved ones after more than a year’s worth of planning and preparation, Cornelius said, “It felt wonderful. To me, it was the sense of accomplishment, building such a beautiful place in such a short amount of time. I’m just thrilled with the way the place looks and feels.”
Sharing his thoughts on the end of one journey and the beginning of another, Rutkowski said, “I was looking around and the vibe was perfect. There were happy people here, people dancing, people drinking and people eating. That felt really rewarding because this was a theory that we had. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it, and I felt it.”