The Surprenant System
Cape Cod Life / August 2020 / Food & Dining, People & Businesses
Writer: Chris White / Photographer: Brian Samuels
At the center of the Cape Cod dining universe, one man does things a bit differently.
People often describe Cape Cod as an arm, bent at the elbow of Chatham, but imagine instead something more far out. Imagine the Cape is a galaxy unto itself, its spiral spinning from the Canal all the way up and around to the very tip of Provincetown’s Long Point. Within this galaxy, untold solar systems also spin—the surfing subculture of the National Seashore, the diverse art community, the whale watching and ecotourism industry, the commercial and sport fishing interests. Then, there are other solar systems within the hospitality and dining sectors of Cape Cod, some with planets that orbit geographical stars, others circling one particular type of cuisine: ice cream, fried clams, or lobster rolls for instance. Now, imagine that solar systems build by expansion, that they add planets as they grow, perhaps in the vein of the universe itself as it constantly widens into the unknown. Using this cosmological structure, one can look at the successes of one Cape restaurateur as a distinct solar system that has been growing for nearly 40 years. And, if the laws of the current-day universe would return to something like normal, it would be easy to predict this interplanetary system to further expand into the future.
Jamie Surprenant may be the force of gravity at the center of his orbiting restaurants, but this star actually includes a number of satellite individuals, including: the staff at his establishments, his business partners, his customers, his parents and his uncle, and his wife and their immediate family. The restaurants, the people, they all exist as an interrelated, influential microcosm of the Cape dining scene. Currently, Surprenant owns and operates five Cape restaurants. Since the age of 12, Surprenant has been involved with the restaurant industry. Although his father was a grocery store manager, Surprenant always thought of his extended family as one of restaurateurs because his uncle owned a number of concepts. The Surprenants moved from their home in the Dartmouth-New Bedford area to the Cape when Jamie was 12. “My father said, ‘We’re moving to the Cape to start a Mexican restaurant,’” Surprenant recalled in a 2018 interview with Mary Katherine Starr on the “Built On Cape Cod” podcast. “I officially thought he had lost his mind.”
The Mexican restaurant that the Surprenants opened is Sam Diego’s, which quickly established itself as a Cape Cod fixture. And although Jamie Suprenant did in fact attend school and college, he credits his time working alongside his parents as his true education. He’s only half-joking when he says, “I hold a degree from Sam Diego’s University.” At first, young Jamie learned the basics of how to work in restaurants, but as he grew older, he began to crib wisdom from the managers, and he learned how the operation actually runs. He notes that his parents have had excellent partners; “Watching them grow and make mistakes was one of the best hands-on education experiences I could ever have,” he told Starr.
Around 1995, Surprenant decided that he’d like to strike out on his own, and in partnership with his parents and a friend, he purchased the Hyannis Port Brewing Company, which they rebranded as the Cape Cod Brewhouse. In this venture, the brewpub concept was already in place, which had some advantages: it was interactive, and of course there was the beer. Surprenant says, “It was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity to own a restaurant with a microbrewery that was already existing.” Nevertheless, he still had the desire do build something more from scratch, so when the opportunity came along, the group sold the Brewhouse. At about the same time, Five Bays Bistro in Osterville came onto the market. Surprenant knew people who worked there, and his parents actually discovered at a New Year’s Eve dinner there that the owners had decided to sell. “I was there the next morning, on New Year’s Day,” says Surprenant, “knocking on the back door.”
Five Bays Bistro would become the “Earth” of the Surprenant solar system. In the ensuing years, Jamie would branch out and establish larger, higher volume restaurants, but this would be his first concept that he really built from the ground up. It’s the home planet, and it continues to draw diners and patrons from not only the village of Osterville but from far and wide. It’s also somewhat eclectic, offering a mix of fine dining and bistro-style food, all while providing a village neighborhood atmosphere that also manages to be cosmopolitan. Diners might start off with Lobster Sliders or Salmon Belly Crudo, before enjoying Ribeye Au Poivre with truffle frites or Sole Francaise. To create and nurture this endeavor, Surprenant teamed up with Tim Souza, former chef at The Roadhouse, and together began serving guests the summer of 2002.
Eight years later, in 2010, Surprenant launched his second concept, Añejo Mexican Bistro & Tequila Bar on Falmouth’s Main Street. Think of this as Jupiter of the Surprenant system, for it’s the first of a pair. “Añejo” means vintage, mature, or aged, and armchair gastronomists most likely associate the term with a fine tequila. While Añejo has some crossover with his parents landmark restaurant, Surprenant envisioned something more traditional, and he wanted to provide more of an outdoor dining experience. He partnered with an old friend of his, Jesse Kersey, who had worked with him at Sam Diego’s. Kersey is originally from California, and he missed the Mexican food of his childhood. As they built the concept together, the partners conducted extensive “market research.” Surprenant recalls, “Jesse and I spent a lot of time at Erwin Ramos’s Café Olé in Cambridge and at Casa Romero off Newbury Street in Boston.”
Surprenant’s next venture would be a completely different type of entity, and it was one that he felt almost a responsibility to open. He had moved to Osterville, and had seen the turnover of restaurants at 791 Main Street; he wanted to provide something more stable for the community and also to try to elevate the village as more of a dining destination. In 2013, he opened Crisp Flatbread, which offers wings, meatballs, and pasta, but is most renowned for its wood fired pizzas. As Surprenant told Mary Katherine Starr, “All of the pizza-making goes on right in front of the customer in the dining room. Customers love to see the product from start to finish, and the passion that goes into it. It’s a lot of fun.” Crisp enjoyed rapid acclaim and also succeeds in providing excellent gluten free pizza. Surprenant says, “We searched high and low for the right product and even tried making it ourselves; ultimately we found an amazing GF pizza crust at a little bakery in Cranston, RI, and we have contracted them to make our GF crust. Its flavor is by far the best.” As demand for takeout for all types of pizza grew, Surprenant saw the need for a satellite devoted entirely to this service, so he opened Crisp, Too across the street. All of the pizza chefs at the new location receive their training in the original kitchen, and they go back and forth between the two. Surprenant says, “We also have a kitchen manager in charge of training and quality control; he is vital to keeping both locations on the same page.”
The most recent planet, the “Saturn,” in Surprenant’s orbit is Añejo Hyannis, opened in 2018. Kersey and Surprenant had always wanted a second location for Añejo, and they moved into an existing Mexican restaurant, where the old Beech Tree Cantina once stood; the 200-year-old tree still grows in the middle of it. Plans for further spin-offs of Añejo have been in the works, but the pandemic has put further developments on hold. 2020 has been a challenging and difficult year for people in all walks of life, but the hospitality and restaurant industries have been hit particularly hard. Surprenant optimistically says, “Hopefully in the future we will look back at this time with a new confidence that if we were able to survive it, then the sky is the limit for the potential of our restaurants. We will survive.”
The enduring success of Surprenant’s collection of restaurants for so many years has much to do with his philosophy as both an owner and a manager. He says, “I enjoy working with passionate, creative people and consider it my job to support my partners and employees by providing them an environment that allows them to focus on the customer experience. I’ve had the experience of not having my voice be heard when I’ve had something to contribute, so I welcome feedback from any of my employees, from the dishwasher to the general manager.” Restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book, “Setting The Table,” is the source for Surprenant’s philosophy about building a team, especially the notion that the “customer comes second. The first and most important application of hospitality is to the people who work for you, and then, in descending order of priority, everyone else: the basic premise is simple.” Surprenant adds, “It’s my experience that if we are taking care of each other first, the customer will always be taken care of in the best way.” And, it is this sense of unity, this family of both blood relations and adopted, that is the true star around which all of Surprenant’s restaurants orbit. He concludes, “I am blessed to work with friends and family everyday. That certainly makes things easier. I go into every day expecting challenges and see those challenges as a way for my restaurants to be better going forward.”
See what the Surprenant system is all about at any of Jamie’s restaurants: Five Bays Bistro, Crisp Flatbread or either Añejo location.
And check out our coverage of Crisp Flatbread here!