There can be a wide range of emotions that Bill and Ellen Cornelius see when people step inside: Some are shouting for joy with their hands in the air. Some are clapping their hands and bopping their heads in rhythm.
Others actually start shedding tears, whether it’s joy or relief that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.
Just about everyone smiles after filling their bellies with a wide array of authentic, southern cooking.
It’s all part of an experience so unique at the Blue Rooster in Sarasota, Florida, that Bill Cornelius — who, along with Ellen, owns the place — said a prominent international newspaper gave it some high praise.
“One of the major newspapers in London, England, said it was the second-best thing about Sarasota,” Bill Cornelius said. “The paper said that (nearby) Siesta Key Beach was the best thing.”
Standing out in a dining hotbed
That “second-best thing” Cornelius said, is a Sunday meal that he and Ellen host at their restaurant that’s anything but a typical brunch experience.
Known as the “gospel brunch buffet,” it’s a weekly gathering (except in summer when it’s bi-weekly or monthly) that can best be described as a combination of two old-school staples of a traditional Sunday: An energetic church service and tasteful home cooking.
About 200 people each Sunday pack the Blue Rooster — a jazz and blues establishment that Bill and Ellen Cornelius bought and refurbished in 2012 upon moving to Sarasota after spending three decades in Northville, Michigan, working in the auto industry for Ford Motor Company — to enjoy the music and food.
Even for a Sarasota area lauded by many for having one of the most exquisite and diverse set of restaurants in the country, it’s a place and occasion on Sundays that still stands out.
The gospel brunch buffet has existed since 2013, birthed from an experience when Bill and Ellen Cornelius attended the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Eating at a brunch with their two sons, the couple heard a waitress sing happy birthday to someone and were immediately captivated.
“The young woman told us she only sang in church and to friends at the restaurant,” Bill Cornelius said. “We had never heard anyone sing so beautifully, and have never forgotten the experience. It was a moment of pure joy.”
What does the gospel brunch buffet consist of?
The spread is an array of lunch and breakfast dishes with a southern touch, such as scrambled eggs, bacon, waffles, collard greens, salads, catfish fritters, macaroni and cheese, southern-style stew, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fruit and fried green tomatoes.
The entertainment is provided by an authentic, four-member gospel band called “Truality,” which belts out traditional and modern gospel praise songs.
“The group members are very spiritual people, and everyone who hears them sing knows that they are sincere in their convictions regarding the message they are conveying through song,” Bill Cornelius said.
The brunch is divided into two sessions, one in the late morning where food starts to be served at 11:30, and music begins at noon.
At around 1, the band gets a break, the morning session customers head out, and then more people arrive for the afternoon session that lasts from 1:30 to 2:30.
At the moment, the cost of the brunch is $24.95.
But so often, it’s an experience that ends up priceless for those who leave, after all the singing, laughing, dancing and even crying.
“Most people love the experience of attending the brunch, and thank us for allowing them to have this special experience,” Bill Cornelius said.