In August 2014, New Canaan’s Roger Sherman Inn was listed for sale. After remaining on the market for more than two years, a sale was announced, with the closing being contingent on approval by the town’s planning and zoning commission. That approval did not occur, despite three efforts to win it.
Today, there’s no talk of sale or closure at the inn. Instead, a new level of activity is taking place that is designed to rebrand the property as a culinary and hospitality attraction. But, then again, the Oenoke Ridge Road landmark has a long history of reinvention.
The original property was built in the mid- to late-18th century as the modest home of the Rev. Justus Mitchell, the minister of the Congregational Church, and his wife, Martha Sherman, the niece of the Continental Congress delegate Roger Sherman. The home changed hands several times during the first part of the 19th century until New York financier William E. Bond acquired it in 1868 and made expansive renovations befitting a Gilded Age tycoon. In 1925, it was bought by J. Herbert and Louise Stevenson Tebbetts, who added more rooms and a wraparound porch. But rather than maintaining a private residence, the Tebbetts opened the building with a twin purpose: as a 17-room lodging spot known as the Holmewood Inn and an educational facility called the Holmewood Junior School.
While the school closed after three years, the inn remained operational and became a local favorite. It was purchased by hotelier John D. Shea in 1946 and sold in 1960 to a New Jersey country club manager named Roger Sherman Ross, a direct descendant of the colonial patriot, for whom it was renamed.
Real estate investors Joseph and Nesreen Jaffre, who previously owned Le Château in South Salem, bought the Roger Sherman Inn in 2008 for $3.4 million with the goal of continuing the establishment’s reputation for fine dining. In a November 2008 review, New York Times restaurant critic Patricia Brooks exclaimed, “It’s been a long time since I have seen a menu so appealing that I’ve wanted to order every single dish.”
But the post-recession period saw the inn’s revenue shrink, and by 2014 the Jaffres listed the property for $6 million. There was no interest from the hospitality industry. Rowayton real estate developer Andy Glazer offered to buy the property and transform it into a development with eight single-family homes. The Jaffres initially announced the closure of the inn in January 2017 pending the planning and zoning commission’s approval of the sale. But the commission rejected Glazer’s initial proposal and two updated proposals. Unable to move forward, the Jaffres decided to keep the inn open and work to make it profitable.
Nesreen Jaffre acknowledged that while many locals were unhappy to learn that the inn would be closing, the inn required more than good wishes to stay afloat.
“Although it is a staple in New Canaan, the community needs to know that it requires their support,” she said. “It requires the public’s help in keeping it open. This is not a building that is supported by government grants or public subsidies. You can’t go there once a year and claim that you are supporting it.”
To encourage a new wave of patronage, Jaffre sought to emphasize the fine dining experience. Last fall, she brought in Francois Kwaku-Dongo, the Ivory Coast-born chef who gained international prominence in 1991 as executive chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in West Hollywood. Kwaku-Dongo came to Connecticut in 2005 as executive chef at L’Escale Restaurant on Greenwich Harbor, and he viewed the Roger Sherman Inn as an opportunity he could not refuse.
“I always wanted to have a place that I would call home that not only has the restaurant, but also has the facilities to do weddings and off-premise catering,” he said. “Then I came and saw the property and I said, ‘Yes, this reminds me so much of the south of France, where you have a big lawn and a property where you can do really great food, but you’re also part of a community that is small and supports each other.’ It was a no-brainer for me to find a spot like that.”
Since arriving at the inn last fall, Kwaku-Dongo has been the subject of a publicity push playing up his status as a celebrity chef, which he found highly amusing.
“Celebrity is a big word,” he said with a laugh, adding that he was more focused on establishing bonds with local farms and providers for his ingredients to his seasonally inspired menus. “Ours is a relationship business. You want to know who grows your vegetables so you can tell the story to your customers. Rather than have someone I’ve never met bring a tomato from Chile, I’d rather deal with the farmers here.”
Jaffre added that Kwaku-Dongo was further incentivized by having part-ownership of the restaurant and future catering businesses.She also identified plans to introduce vegetable and herb gardens that would be used by the chef and his kitchen team, along with the possibility of adding a beer garden to the premises. The inn’s rooms are also undergoing upgrades with new bathrooms being installed. Jaffre said that this establishment seems to be a continuous work in progress. “When you have a 250-year-old property, it is always needing renovation,” she sighed.