Sunlight filters through the trees to brighten dining tables set amid the lush gardens of the Sundy House restaurant and boutique hotel in Delray Beach. With its fountains and pools, its tropical palms and flowers, the Sundy House garden is a tranquil hideaway.
So it's hard to believe the property was the recent cause of dark days for its operator, restaurateur Jason Emmett.
"It was terrifying," Emmett said of trying to operate the restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic. "Things were rough."
Last June, the former president of Duffy's Sports Grill took over the lease for both the restaurant and hotel at this historic property just south of Atlantic Avenue, at 106 S. Swinton Ave.
Emmett is known for leading Lake Worth Beach-based Duffy's after his father, Duffy's president Paul Emmett, died of bile duct cancer in 2015.
He left Duffy's the year before the pandemic hit
Now Jason Emmett has his own company, Paradigm Hospitality Group, which quietly started in 2019 with two longtime former Duffy's employees, Amy Siegel and Carl Barry.
Emmett left Duffy's in 2019 after the families that own the chain sought a change in leadership.
At first he worked as a restaurant consultant, including for owners of the Sundy House restaurant. Then last year, he acquired the lease for the restaurant and hotel from property owner Pebb Capital of Boca Raton.
The Sundy House is part of a planned redevelopment by Pebb. Dubbed Sundy Village, the project will incorporate historic homes on the 7-acre site into restaurants, bars, shops and office space. Sundy Village is at the gateway to downtown Delray Beach, and starts at Atlantic Avenue south along Swinton Avenue.
In a recent interview, Emmett reflected on the restaurant business during the pandemic, as well as the growth of his new company during arguably the most difficult time in the hospitality industry in decades.
Emmett said he suggested to Pebb officials last June that he reopen the Sundy House hotel and restaurant.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Florida restaurants and hotels were reopening after being mostly shut down from March through May because of the pandemic. And the Sundy House's outdoor dining spaces seemed a safe choice for welcoming diners.
But the pandemic continued to keep patrons away, deep into the year.
"August, September and October were so much worse than I could have imagined," Emmett said.
Then came January, the second round of federal aid to restaurants, and perhaps most importantly, the rollout of vaccines, which brought diners back to restaurants.
"And as bad as it was last year, this year has been surprisingly good," Emmett said.
From a sleepy sports bar to dynamic chain, Emmett family built Duffy's
Jason Emmett learned the restaurant business at the right hand of his father, Paul Emmett, the beloved restauranteur who transformed a sleepy sports bar into the dynamic Duffy's Sports Grill chain.
Paul Emmett was known for his cheerful, tell-it-like-it-is demeanor, as well as his skill in marketing. He introduced the Duffy's MVP reward club cards that offered discounts for frequent dining. His smiling face became enmeshed with Duffy's brand, right along with the eatery's green walls and banks of television sets tuned to sports.
But when Emmett died six years ago at age 62, Jason, was thrust into the limelight as the new head of the company. Not only did Jason, then 34, lose his father and the family patriarch, "I lost my best friend in the world," he said at the time.
Despite his grief, Emmett moved quickly to keep Duffy's growing. New locations were added, as well as new menu items.
But months into his new gig as head of the restaurant chain, Emmett acknowledged that making decisions — without having his father's advice — sometimes was tough. "Not having him as that safety net has been the biggest change for me," Jason said.
After leaving Duffy's in 2019, Emmett, Siegel and Barry formed Paradigm. They began advising restaurants, but now they own and operate three different restaurant concepts.
They started by taking over the American Icon Brewery restaurant, with locations in Fort Lauderdale and Vero Beach, as well as beer distribution from Cape Canaveral through Key West.
They also created The Agency Kitchen & Bar for Paragon Theaters, which acquired several locations of the bankrupt Frank Theaters company. The Agency locations are at Delray Marketplace and in Fredericksburg, Va. By the end of the year, Paradigm will open a new one at a former Frank Theater in Cary, N.C.
Taking over Sundy House, he admits he underestimated the pandemic
When Paradigm took over the Sundy House in June, Emmett said he thought it was a good opportunity for the future.
But Emmett said he misjudged the length and reach of the pandemic, thinking the pandemic would fade faster.
He said he wishes he had waited until later in the year to reopen.
"I was overly eager," Emmett said. "I had these few people who had followed me from Duffy's and I felt this sense of obligation to them. It pushed me to reopen all these things faster. In hindsight, it made more sense to open the Sundy House in November."
There's a hint in Emmett's voice that he wishes he could have had his father's advice, despite knowing even the most seasoned restaurateurs scrambled to survive the worst of the pandemic last year.
That's all in the past now, of course. And as he stood in the sunshine of the Sundy House garden, Emmett sounded optimistic about the days ahead.
"The future looks extremely bright," he said.
With the restaurant business back, Emmett said the 11-room hotel is gaining, too, especially with events. The Sundy House is a longtime popular spot for weddings and special events, and that business is starting to return.
Nonetheless, there's still room for more growth this year, he added, and hope for a stronger year.
Although his father built a restaurant empire, Emmett said he has more modest goals.
"Six restaurants by the end of the year, I feel OK about that," he said. "I don't need to have the biggest company anymore. I just want a good little profitable business that I can be proud of."