From their initial venture in Cape Town to their present success in The Granite City, Alex and Ruth have cleverly combined their love for wine with an inclusive, community-focused approach to create a unique experience for every one of their customers. SugarBird’s story of resilience, adaptation and unwavering dedication to their craft is guaranteed to inspire.
In this Q&A blog post, Alex and Ruth speak candidly about the history of SugarBird Wines, their new premises overlooking Union Terrace Gardens and why Aberdeen holds a special place in their hearts, as well as their exciting future plans…
How would you describe SugarBird to someone who isn’t familiar with the business?
Alex: “SugarBird Wines is a hybrid wine shop and bar with a friendly, neighbourhood feel. We focus on wines of South Africa but have a wide choice from around the world, with an aim to find quality gems at a fantastic value.
“In the bar, we choose a weekly selection of about 40 wines from the shelves to serve by the glass, so there’s always a variety from different categories served up with tasty snacks, cheese and charcuterie boards. Our weekly wine tastings offer an informal, relaxed yet informative environment to learn a bit more about the wines of the world.”
How would you describe the community of customers you’ve built up?
Ruth: “We’ve grown our community of customers organically, with the immediate local neighbourhood supporting us from the get-go and news of us spreading fairly quickly. At SugarBird, we welcome people who know about wine, those who know nothing about wine but have a curiosity and those who are on their wine journey and happy to have a wide and varied choice.
“Our customers are from all walks of life and come to our venue to unwind, chat, share and discover. From younger couples on date nights, to groups enjoying our tastings, it seems there is a real desire within the Aberdeen community to enjoy a space that is out of the norm but offers a high quality product and service.”
Tell us about the history of SugarBird and how you’ve grown the business to this point…
Alex: “The story of SugarBird begins with our restaurant in Cape Town, SeaBreeze, which we launched in 2017. Our seafood restaurant only serves locally landed fresh fish and shellfish and to honour the local provenance of the food, we matched this ethos with our wine list and only sourced locally when compiling our curated wine list of South African wine. This was the start of our love affair with the wines of the Western Cape.
“During the first few months of the COVID pandemic, we realised that we were in a very precarious position. With the restaurant entirely shut and no local Government assistance or furlough scheme, we had to come up with a plan to ensure the survival of the restaurant and the jobs of our 30 employees. We fast forwarded our longer-term plans to open a wine shop and bar back in Scotland and returned to our home in Aberdeen.”
Ruth: “Whilst Alex was employed full time as Head Chef of the new visitor restaurant at Balmoral Castle, I took possession of the keys to a new Union Grove venue that was to be transformed into SugarBird Wines.
“As for the name, it comes from the indigenous bird of the Cape that feeds on the flora and fynbos often found in the winelands. We felt that the name SugarBird linked nicely with the brand at SeaBreeze and had a nice nod to South Africa while being less of a typically stuffy name for a wine business.”
What made you both so passionate about wine and creating an enjoyable experience around it?
Alex: “We’ve both been passionate about wine for many years through our shared backgrounds in hospitality, but it was really our experience in Cape Town that grew our knowledge and understanding of the wine world. Creating an enjoyable experience around wine is really a reflection of the hospitality we received when visiting the vineyards throughout the winemaking areas of the Cape. So, we aim to bring that tasting room experience to everything we do at SugarBird.”
Tell us about the new premises at Union Terrace Gardens…
Ruth: “We are beyond excited about this new venue! Having viewed many locations over the last 12 months, the first time we walked into the pavilion we saw the immediate wow factor and the potential to create a beautiful wine bar. With an exceptional bar overlooking the newly upgraded Union Terrace Gardens, as well as a wonderful event space with an outside terrace, we really hope we’re bringing something quite unique to the city centre.
“Our Union Grove location is lovely but it’s very much a neighbourhood shop and bar without the facility to offer events. The Union Terrace Pavilions, on the other hand, are stunning landmark buildings located in the most magnificent gardens. We love that The Burns Pavilion is so centrally located, allowing people from all over Aberdeen and the shire to visit and enjoy our concept.”
Alex: “The design of this new venue is a departure from your “usual” style of wine bar. It was important for us to lose the stuffiness associated with wine drinking and to provide a relaxed but visually beautiful environment. The murals we chose are bold and feature the flora of the Cape - as well as a sugar bird or two! Within the Burns Pavilion, the main area will be given to our lovely bar but the upper shelving will feature the wines that can be purchased to take away, accessed by a striking brass swing ladder.
“We are extremely excited to be a part of the rejuvenation of Union Street, and the city centre at large, and to provide a quality venue which we are certain will be a much talked about destination.”
Why did you decide to launch new premises?
Ruth: “We decided to open new premises because of the huge success of our Union Grove venue. At the moment we unfortunately can’t fulfil many requests for private events and tastings, which is always frustrating as a business owner.
“In addition, our current location was only ever meant to be a local neighbourhood bar, but we have been inundated with customers from much further afield who see SugarBird as a destination. With it being such a wee venue, it’s always heartbreaking when the odd few customers are unable to be accommodated!”
Why did you decide to grow the business in Aberdeen as opposed to somewhere else?
Ruth: “As an Aberdonian born and bred, I have always championed my home city whilst living and working in London and in Cape Town. The major cities of Scotland get so much attention from the tourist industry, and I feel it’s a shame that there aren’t more tourists discovering the absolute beauty of Aberdeen city and surrounding shire - there is simply just so much to offer in this region.”
You’ve surpassed the halfway point of the crowdfunding campaign - why do you think people have backed your vision?
Alex: “We’re overwhelmed by the support; it’s been incredible to say the least! We set a crowdfunding target based on our business plan for the Burns Pavilion, as well as negotiating further finance as part of the overall budget. But seeing the support coming from both existing customers and new ones has made this so personal, which has been unexpected. We are blown away by the response and so excited to welcome everyone to enjoy using their crowdfunding packages.”
What are you most excited about for the future?
Ruth: “We are currently refurbishing SeaBreeze and launching our bar within the restaurant as SugarBird Wine Bar, so we feel the brand has come full circle. In the Cape, we will be focusing on Cap Classique - South African Champagne, in other words - and will be serving 15 fizzes by the flute and a total of 40 different Cap Classiques all from right here in the Western Cape.
Alex: “In addition, we will be launching our own SugarBird Cap Classique, a 2018 vintage 100% Pinot Noir Brut Rose and will be shipping that across to the UK as one of our key brands for the SugarBird venues in Aberdeen. We can’t wait to pop those corks! The branding is beautiful, and we love the fizz inside the bottle.
“As ever, we are always looking for other locations but will start to look outside Aberdeen for areas that are similar to our Union Grove location so we can roll out the neighbourhood hybrid concept in more places.”
Find out more about our exciting next chapter as we expand into the heart of Aberdeen city centre!