Saltwater Portrait

Andrea Spuck and Tim Southerst: World travelers set roots in Lewes

Community spirit sold owners of Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet
May 17, 2016

There's no place like home, and Andrea Spuck and Tim Southerst didn't quite know what home felt like until they found Lewes.

The owners of Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet on Front Street have lived all over the world, including England, Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany and across the United States. But none of those places had the same feeling as Lewes.

“It took us two trips here to seriously convince us this was the place we wanted to lay down our roots,” said Southerst, with an unmistakable British accent.

Southerst and his wife Andrea, born in Oregon, were living in New Jersey when they were approached for a house exchange. The idea was a family would stay in Tim and Andrea's London flat, while they would spend time in the other couple's Lewes home.

“Initially, we were actually kind of laughing about it. Delaware, really?” Tim said. “We came to a town we never heard of in a state we never stopped in, all in the spirit of doing something different.”

But they went ahead with the exchange anyway, as they wanted to take their middle daughter to the beach over Easter weekend. What came next changed their lives forever.

“There were so many facets of life we fell in love with,” he said.

Connections to their travels became apparent immediately, specifically Lewes' famed Cannonball House. The cannonball lodged in the wall of the Front Street home was likely made at the Royal Arsenal on the outskirts of London, which happens to be where Tim and Andrea own a vacation flat.

Another personal connection is William Penn. Records show Lewes received its name sometime after Penn acquired the land in 1682 from the Duke of York. Many believe Penn chose the name Lewes because many members of his family resided in the prominent town of Lewes in Sussex, England.

The connection for Tim comes at the end of Penn's life. Beset by financial issues, Penn returned to England in the early part of the 18th century, living out his final years in the small town of Ruscombe, the same village in which Tim was born.

The Zwaanendael Museum provided yet another surprise for Tim and Andrea. While living in Holland from 2006 to 2008, the family visited the town of Hoorn. Hoorn's town hall is the building on which the Zwaanendael was based.

As if each connection wasn't enough, Tim and Andrea stumbled onto fellow Brit Gavin Braithwaite and his wife Lou, who were then the owners of Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet. The Union Jack flag hanging outside their stores immediately caught their attention.

“We thought, why would anyone be flying the Union Jack flag here?” Andrea said.

The couples chatted a bit before heading home. When Spuck and Southerst returned to Lewes the next Labor Day weekend, they discovered the stores were for sale. The Braithwaites tried to sell Tim and Andea on buying the businesses, but it wasn't financially feasible.

“We talked about it on the way home, ran the numbers and realized it wasn't going to be possible,” Andrea said.

Ten days later, destiny called. Bayer, a pharmaceutical company at which Tim worked for 18 years, offered a severance package for the first time in his tenure. It was just the nudge the couple needed to pull the trigger on a move to Lewes.

“We didn't come back to Lewes until we had agreed to buy the businesses,” Andrea said. “Two visits and we agreed to move our family here.”

Sussex County has been known for its slower way of life. And coming from New Jersey, the pace of Slower Lower was refreshing.

“New Jersey life was frenetic across every single level – both professional and personal,” Tim said. “It detracted from the sense of being in this together and the sense of community.”

The tense New Jersey lifestyle was just an extension of the frenzied life Tim, Andrea and their children were living. Tim worked in brand management and general management for Bayer. His job forced the family to pick up and move every few years. Between 1994 and 2011, Tim and Andrea lived in London, Seattle, New Jersey, Germany, Amsterdam and Brussels. Three kids were born along the way, including their son John in Germany.

Along with his sisters Alexandra and Elizabeth, John is considered a third culture kid. The entire family has both British and American passports, but the kids don't have enough grounding in either country to feel completely at home, Andrea said.

“The kids who grew up in this area can go home and see their old house or see their old school,” Andrea said. “Our kids can't.”

Social media has made things easier, she said. Alexandra, their older daughter, has been able to stay connected with her best friend from fourth grade, when the family lived in Amsterdam. The friends had visited together only one time since then, but they have been able to talk on the phone and connect via social media. They recently reconnected in person again.

The stores are truly a family affair; all three children work in the store whenever possible. Alexandra is a freshman at the University of Delaware, majoring in communications and French, with a focus on journalism. Elizabeth is a junior at Cape who wants to be a pediatric hospice nurse. John is a sixth-grader at Beacon Middle School who is very active in Boy Scouts and lacrosse.

Tim and Andrea met on a blind date in 1983, while Tim was visiting the Pacific Northwest. Andrea was attending Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and her mom and Tim's aunt worked together at the same hospital.

Andrea studied aboard for a semester in the UK in 1984, but most of the couple's collegiate life was spent apart. Unlike her daughter's daily connection to her best friend, Andrea said, staying connected in the '80s was not easy.

“For us, it was all writing letters and agreeing when we would phone each other,” she said. “[Tim] didn't have a phone in his flat, so he had to go to a call box on the corner.”

Fast forward 30 years and the couple is married with three kids. Together they've gained incredible experiences traveling the world. The couple tries to incorporate those experiences in their stores, specifically at Lewes Gourmet.

Founded as The Union Jack, specializing in British foods and gifts, the store was later changed to Lewes Gourmet. When Tim and Andrea took over the business last year, they started expanding the selection to more hard-to-find foods and treats from around the world, with a specific focus on the countries with which they have a connection.

British candies are popular as well as the No. 1 Scottish soda Iron Brew. Tim says squeals are often heard when folks find something they never thought they'd see again.

Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet share a common space with no wall separating the two businesses. Tim says it's fun to watch families split up in front of the store, and enter the doors for each business only to find each other again just inside.

“It seems like such an eclectic focus of these two juxtaposed businesses, but there really is a surprising amount of fluidity between these seemingly different worlds,” Tim said.

Tim said visitors who have made the stores a regular stop on their annual family vacations, are often relieved to learn the new owners have made no major changes to either store,  Tim said they wouldn't dare mess with a proven business model.

The support of the community is one of the major reasons the couple was attracted to Lewes, and it continues to be a reason why they love their new home.

“There was almost a palpable spirit of community from the very first moment we came here,” Tim said. “The reason that was so important to us is we've both lived in England a lot, and village life is like an underpinning of society there. There's something about the familiarity; the pursuit of common objectives for a village or a town.”

Added Andrea, “And just the recognition that every job, every person in the village is integral to the success.”

  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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