By Kathryn Eident
It’s raining outside – pouring actually – and the Sunbird Kitchen in Orleans is packed. Co-owner J’aime Sparrow glides around the space, delivering bowls heaped with salad greens and cardboard trays straining under the weight of thick sandwiches capped with locally made bread.
A line of customers waiting to order snakes through the seating area while diners laugh, talk, and eat around large and small tables.
From the chalkboard menu and driftwood on the walls, to the homemade tables with graphic designs, and the cookbooks lining the shelf in the open kitchen, the place is an eclectic mix of West Coast cool with classic Cape Cod touches.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Sparrow is busy, but happy. It’s taken her, and her husband Christian, years to realize a moment like this; a restaurant filled with happy customers, many of whom frequent the café.
“People come in and enjoy it for what it is,” J’aime says. “They walk in and order, sit down with a computer or a book, or be with their families, feed their children. They do every single thing we imagined them doing in this space.”
Fans of the couple’s rustic, hearty fare will have already recognized the name: Sunbird got its start as a food truck on Route 6 in Wellfleet seven years earlier.
The restaurant, which was opened in 2014, is nestled in the corner of a cozy strip mall on Route 6A in Orleans. It’s just the next step in their ever-evolving business model that combines each of their strengths: food service for J’aime; design and branding for Christian. To the couple, Sunbird isn’t just about food; it’s a concept and a brand they hope will one day evolve into a line of lifestyle products.
“There’s a very clear Sunbird aesthetic, and it goes from the design to the food to the service and beyond that,” J’aime says. “It’s creating a flock, and having food and a design that our flock can enjoy when they choose, kind of like birds do. They see a zone, swoop in, then keep moving.”
So far, their ideas have taken flight with locals, visitors, and employees, too. The couple has brought on two partners, restauranteur Karen Densmore and chef Garrett Smythe, and together the group employs anywhere from 15 to 30 workers depending on the season.
“We have a synergistic front and back of the house,” Christian says. “We see each other, we watch each other, we help each other.”
It means any one of them can be seen doing whatever needs to be done; from acting as a barista behind the counter, to bussing tables, mopping floors, or washing dishes.
“We’re natural collaborators, like nature – it works because we work together,” he says.
Their latest “experiment” is adding dinner service, which J’aime says was both a financial and creative decision.
“We lease the space, so we figured the smart thing would be to open for dinner,” she says. “We also have some food that wouldn’t fit quite perfectly into the daytime menu. So now this food has a way for us to get it out into the world from the creativity side of things.”
It meant modifying the space so it could transform from a casual cafe with counter service by day into a sit-down restaurant at night.
“The bar is designed to hold retail during the day, then come 3 o’clock we shut down and turn into a restaurant, everything goes away,” Christian says. “It’s all modular.”
The result is a casual evening dining experience in a lounge-like setting with pieces designed and built by Christian.
They pride themselves on their staple menu items, such as their famous fish tacos and Sunbird burger developed at the food truck, which are kept fresh in the restaurant with locally grown seasonal herbs and vegetables.
When they can’t use a vegetable that comes in from a local farm on the daily menu, they pickle or preserve it.
Take, for example, their grilled cheese. More than just butter, bread, and cheese, it comes on grilled ciabatta with smoked mozzarella and features tangy kimchi, a Korean-style spicy pickled cabbage made in-house.
“We like to look at things people enjoy and say, ‘How can we make this better?’” J’aime says.
The name Sunbird is homage to their surname – Sparrow − but also to their love of birds and to how birds interact with the world.
“Sunbird just made sense,” J’aime says. “It’s an all-encompassing bird − it can be any bird.”
The couple’s flexibility and creativity comes from a decade of experience in California, where they each honed their skills. J’aime learned the restaurant business working the front of the house at restaurants such as A-16 and SPQR in San Francisco; Christian developed his knack for design at ad agencies with big brands in their portfolios. But with their roots on Cape Cod − Christian as a local, J’aime as a summer visitor − they eventually returned to the place they met to bring Sunbird to life.
“We truly enjoyed the ride the entire time we were in San Francisco,” Christian says. “But by year 10, we were just kind of looking at each other like, ‘We know where this goes from here and it’s cool, but we need to do things for us.’”
They found a community waiting to welcome them, from customers who quickly became loyal patrons, to getting financial help in the support of loans from the Community Development Partnership, a nonprofit that helps Cape Codders start businesses and access affordable housing, among other initiatives.
For fans wondering if they’ll see Sunbird in the form of a food truck this year, they’ll have to wait − or come into the cafe. The Sparrows decided to sideline the truck while their dinner service gets off the ground.
“For us, commitment-level-wise, it always made sense to us that the food truck was a stepping stone,” J’aime says.
In the meantime, they’re putting their all into making the café/restaurant a success, even if it means working 60 to 80 hours a week.
“Even when we hit speed bumps, we’re all a team,” J’aime says. “We have a lot of great supporters of Sunbird who buoy us at all times. We wouldn’t be here without them.”