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‘So thrilled that we’re here’: New faces, same charm behind downtown Sugar Magnolia Café

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WAKE FOREST — Amy and John Stephens are the new kids on the block.

The couple are the new owners of Sugar Magnolia Café, the quaint and darling downtown Wake Forest shop known for tea parties and gifts. After taking over in early October, the Stephens found themselves suddenly a part of an active and growing downtown community.

“When you’re the new kids on the block, it’s a little scary. Especially down here because everyone knows everyone,” Amy said.

But she added that everybody on White Street “has welcomed us, has been so supportive, so thrilled that we’re here.”

The Stephens have lived in Heritage for the last couple of years after moving from Chicago, where John owned a Jersey Mike’s franchise. Now settled in to their new home with their 3-year-old daughter Raelyn, John and Amy decided to get back into the restaurant business.

Sugar Magnolia was more than the perfect establishment for them, they said. It was a dream come true.

“I just saw a potential to be part of the community that we brought our daughter here to be a part of,” said John, who grew up in Northern Raleigh before moving to Chicago. “We both have our strengths that we can put toward running this place and getting it how we want it. You know, fitting in, trying to be a productive part of the town.”

The Stephens say they are keeping the charm of the café while adding their own touches. Not changes — they are quick to say that favorite staples of the shop like its chicken salad and pimento cheese aren’t going anywhere. Rather, Amy prefers the word “enhancements.”

The shop will serve more traditional pastries and sandwiches during tea parties, Amy said, while bringing in Sweet & Savory Dessert Cafe — a bakery that runs out of The Factory — to provide baked goods to its customers.

Amy, who will be the café’s event planner, said she’s trying to come up with creative ideas. She’s already planned a series of tea parties based around the “Frozen” Disney movies that are available for kids through the end of the year. She said she will continue to focus on offering space for bridal and baby showers.

Formerly known as Sugar Magnolia Café & Emporium, the new owners decided to drop “Emporium” and create a new logo and website for the business. Its gift shop will have items from a few new vendors for the holiday season.

“We just want to try to pop up, fluff the pillows anywhere we can to try and give that extra appeal,” John said. “Experiment with some newer products, try some different things, just to revitalize some of our food aspects.”

The historic building is nearly a century old, but has been known for tea parties since 1996, when The Olde English Tea Room opened. The business got a makeover and the Sugar Magnolia name when Howard and Christine Sadel bought it three years ago.

In its basement, Sugar Magnolia hides the Magnolia Roots Music Lounge, a dimly lit room plastered with music posters, a bar in the corner. Local artists come on Friday and Saturday evenings to perform original music in an intimate setting.

Raelyn loves the café and its tea parties too.

“She absolutely loves the staff and she knows all their names and she gives them all hugs. And she loves running around and just being a part of it,” Amy said.

“And that’s how we feel. It’s just very comfortable for us. We knew it was ours when we walked in.”

John agreed that the family made the right choice by deciding to make a home and living in Wake Forest — a town that was little more than empty fields where he rode ATVs growing up.

Wake Forest has grown up a lot since then, he said — but the small-town charm remains.

“I think we have a unique place and it’s very charming,” Amy said of the café. “The atmosphere here is darling and people really like that. We want to take that and go with it and make it a place everyone want to come hang out at.”

Want to go?

Sugar Magnolia Café is located at 219 S. White St. in Wake Forest. For more information, visit