Ellen Cornelius is a northerner with a love of the blues and good Southern food. After traveling the country with her husband researching the best in blues and southern cuisine, she built a team and created Blue Rooster, the Rosemary District’s sensational blues bar. We caught up with Ellen to hear what it takes to perfect a fried chicken recipe and how she learned the true meaning of Southern hospitality.
Are you from Sarasota if not where are you from?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn NY. I graduated college at NYU and then we moved to the Detroit. I met my husband while I was in college and he was working for Ford Motor Company. He’s from Illinois, but was hired by Ford out of college. So, I lived in Michigan for about 30 years and then we moved here to Sarasota in 2010. We’ve been in Sarasota a little longer than 7 years now.
What brought you to Sarasota?
We have 3 children. Our youngest was about to graduate from high school in 2010 and I hate the cold weather. I went from New York which is bad enough, to the absolute coldest. That’s why you meet so many people from Michigan in Florida. My brother has lived in San Francisco and we’ve always vacationed out that way, we love wine country. That’s where my husband had his heart set to move, Northern California wine country. I wasn’t sold on California. Different groups of friends in Michigan recommended that we check out Sarasota. As soon as we hit Sarasota, we both looked at each other and said, “This is it”.
What was so fitting about Sarasota over the other places you’d looked at like Northern California?
Not just the beautiful beaches and the tropical weather, but the community feeling. We happened to hit Sarasota the same week of the Christmas Parade, in early December of 2009. I had never been to a Christmas Parade, because when you live in NY or Michigan its too cold to have a Christmas Parade. It was so lovely to see so many families. It wasn’t just a resort area, it was real place, with good schools and community involvement. And then there was all of the culture, the opera, the ballet, the symphony, all of the play houses. It just has everything. Every time we discover something we’re like, “Can you believe it?”. Ringing Museum, St. Armands and Siesta Key were big revelations for us. Around the corner at every turn there’s something we fell in love with.
How did you end up living in this neighborhood?
We initially thought we’d buy a condo in downtown, but then our realtor showed us a house in Laurel Park, the historic district. It wasn’t even on our radar. We just went for it. It was perfect and we have no regrets. We absolutely love it. I ride my bike everywhere.
Tell me about your decision to get into this building.
My husband is always looking for a good investment. This building went on the market and my husband thought it was a great investment. He explained that downtown Main St was so saturated, and that the only way this city could grow was north. We bought the building in late summer 2010 and now we’re finally seeing his prediction come to life.
Did you go right into Blue Rooster?
There was a restaurant next door when we bought it and the previous business was an antique shop. Also there was Vin Cella, an upscale wine cellar that hosts events. He’s still there. Mad Crow the restaurant next door closed and Darwin’s opened. We became partners with them and did really well for a good number of years. After the partnership, my husband decided that it was time to make his dream of opening a blues club, a reality.
How and when did you decide to open Blue Rooster?
It kind of snowballed. We met a neighbor in Laurel Park, who had always dreamed of opening up a Southern food restaurant. We were not the food people, we were about the music side of it. Our former partner was the food guy. He traveled to Memphis for years trying to perfect a fried chicken recipe. He finally perfected it and we were excited to try it. We put his food and our music together and came up with Blue Rooster. It’s a live music venue with Southern comfort food.
What really inspired the vision for what Blue Rooster has become?
Very specifically, there are a number of places in San Francisco. There’s a Farmer Browns, which if you ever visit, the decor is reminiscent of what we have here. Biscuits and Blues and Yoshi’s are other venues there that we took some inspiration from as well. New York too. With my roots, we would visit frequently and bring something back with us. So when people walk in here, they can’t believe they’re in Sarasota. They’re like, “Wow, how come I didn’t know about this place?!” Its a cool vibe and we’ve got handpicked bands.
Tell me about the development of the music aspect of Blue Rooster.
Bill and I traveled all around the country and looked at musicians. Our whole lives, live music has been a part of them. No matter where we lived, no matter where we vacationed, we would always seek out live music. He was always storing little pieces of information in his head about when the time came and he had his own place, what would it would be like.
How did you get involved finding bands in Sarasota?
We went out ourselves, that’s part of what we enjoy doing. We’d hit venues from Naples to Tampa. We’d get business cards from bands. Once you start getting known, you’d be surprised at how many emails you get. Now we don’t have to solicit the bands, they solicit us. We’ve got a great line-up.
I hear your manager is well known in the community. Who is she and why?
Our manager Barbara is the mother-hen, we couldn’t run the place without Barb. Everyone knows her, she greets the customers with a hug and knows everyone’s first name. She knows their favorite drink, she’s amazing, I could only aspire to be half of what she is. She moved to the area from Raleigh NC, where she worked for 7 years at the most famous Italian restaurant in that area. In fact, its ironic, she gets customers here who knew her from that restaurant. So she is just a wealth of knowledge. She does all the hiring and finds the best people. So our servers are great and so are our bartenders. She was gone from January to March on maternity leave and people would come in and ask me, “Who are you, where’s Barbara?” She really is the mother-hen.
What do you see changing in this neighborhood?
Seeing what is going on now in the Rosemary, its all coming to fruition. Everything my husband predicted is finally happening, it’s going up around us. It’s great to see it all come together. The more places that open, the better for everybody. Mandeville Beer Garden, we were happy to see them open and Station 400, they’re a staple, they’ve been here longer than anyone else. The Rosemary on the corner of Lemon and 4th, they’re doing great. People line up outside. We’re thrilled to see what’s going on in this neighborhood.
What gives this place its DNA, what makes Blue Rooster, Blue Rooster?
The people. The staff is second to none in making people feel welcome and providing great service. The kitchen as well. If someone has a particular food need, the kitchen staff goes to the ends of the earth to try to satisfy people. The atmosphere that we’ve created here is very inviting. We love to have families, young kids dancing, especially at the brunch. We love to see them running around and if it gets a little too loud with the music, we invite them to go upstairs where its quiet and they can settle in on the couch. Its very inviting, its not one of these high end, white table cloth, stuffy places where you can’t be yourself. Jeans and a t-shirt, you’re fine. The other ingredient is that we provide a high end product. I mean that in two ways. The food is great. Typically you’ll think that if the music is great, the food will be so so, or vice versa. We’ve got it in both departments. People come to the Sunday Brunch and they’re like that food is great, and that’s a buffet. The food is great, its all made from scratch in the kitchen. The music is hand picked, I challenge anyone to find better live music in Sarasota.
Tell me more about the food.
It’s obviously Southern. I believe what we’re most known for, is the Fried Chicken that our former partner perfected in Memphis. It has a bite to it, its not your run of the mill Fried Chicken. Chicken and Waffles have always been the rave. Shrimp and Cheesy Grits.That dish is probably my favorite. Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf, thats just sinfully delicious. I’m crazy about our Catfish and Collard Greens, which both were items I hadn’t ever had before. I’m a Northern girl, it was all news to me. We also have a great, healthy, Roasted Beet Salad. They roast the beets back in the kitchen and add them to a really nice salad with goat cheese. There’s a lot of healthy options. The desserts, everything is made in house. I make the Chocolate Cake, its an old family recipe. It’s a chocolate chocolate chip cake. I put two cups of chocolate chips in the batter. Apple Pie, Pecan Pie, and a Seasonal Fruit Cobbler. We’ve got a Half Baked-Chicken on the menu also, for those who don’t like Fried Chicken.
What does the term Southern Hospitality mean to you, especially being from NY?
Barbara is my role model for Southern hospitality. When she meets someone for the first time, she greets them as though they are her family. And after she meets them, they come back again and she remembers them. The hospitality is amazing. I run the show on Sundays, I like to think of myself as a warm, personable person anyways, but I’ve also learned a lot from Barbara. That’s how we do it here. Everyone is treated like a member of the family. Even if someone is disgruntled. It rarely happens, but of course it does in this industry. I’ll treat them like I’d treat my cranky Aunt or Grandma, just with respect and figure out what it is I can do to make them happy.