An early departure from a career in the civil service gave husband and wife team, Peter and Emma McCleery the time they needed to create Sugarcane, this year’s winner of the LCN Café/Bistro of the Year title…
It was a bad car accident in 2003 which led to Peter McCleery’s retirement from the NI civil service and his wife, Emma, who also worked for the government, decided to leave at the same time.
During his convalescence, forty-nine-year-old Peter found himself occasionally visiting coffee shops and pubs and he began to think that hospitality might be the business opportunity that he was after. Peter talked to his father, Marshall McCleery, who was involved in selling coffee around Ireland with the Hot Coffee Company, and eventually, he and Emma decided to open their own coffee shop.
An initial foray into Belfast city centre in 2005 was unsuccessful when plans to secure premises in the Botanic area fell through, but in April 2006, the couple opened the shutters at Sugarcane in Comber.
‘In Northern Ireland, we hear a lot about good food, but back when we were starting off, we did feel that some places really weren’t that friendly. We travelled around a lot and we found that in Europe, they took the job really seriously and so we wanted to bring a little of that European café culture back to NI. That’s what we did and I think that back then, we were ahead of the curve,’ says Peter.
‘Sugarcane accommodates about 40 to 50 people and when we first opened, we were more of a coffee shop, doing very light lunches,’ recalls Peter. ‘Then, over the next couple of years or so, we added a restaurant licence and a drinks licence and really went about developing the food end of things. Nowadays, we are known much more for our food.
‘In fact, Sugarcane really does fall well into the category we won at the LCN Awards, we are a coffee shop with a bistro element. We have a bistro menu in the evenings, but it’s casual dining, we stay away from the fine dining end of things, that’s not what we are about. This is about good quality, locally-sourced food, reasonable prices and service with a smile,’ Peter tells LCN.
One thing that Sugarcane is well known for in the north Down area is its breakfasts and sizeable queues are a frequent site at the venue on weekend mornings – everything is available, from traditional fry-ups to healthy alternatives and even an Australian-style breakfast.
In February this year, Sugarcane underwent a major refurbishment programme that included new décor, lighting and crockery, so the venue looked its best when LCN’s mystery shoppers arrived for their inspection.
Peter says that he and Emma and the staff were ‘over the moon’ with the win:
‘We really hadn’t expected it,’ he adds. ‘We knew we were up against some pretty tough competition, a lot of places that we would consider to be much bigger than us, but at the end of the day, it comes down to our core focus on the customer, I think, and the friendliness that there is in the shop. Customers are treated like individuals and some of them are really good friends.’
Peter also says:
‘For us, the LCN Awards are probably one of the most prestigious awards to win because of their mystery shopping element. We have been in for a lot of awards over the years, but I think at the end of the day, LCN is one of the best because of that secret diner aspect.’
As for priorities, Peter says that consolidation remains a key objective:
‘There are over 1000 new homes being built in Comber over the next couple of years. It’s definitely busier here than it used to be and new competition is opening up to. That’s fine, the more places there are in a town, the more attraction it has for people to come.’
At this point, there are no plans to open a second branch of the successful brand and Peter does say that within the next few years, he’d be keen to step back a little from the daily running of the Comber outlet, transferring more of the responsibility to a trust senior management team.