Where to find a ‘hot brown’ on derby day – or any day

Sometimes the best marketing for a product is simply the right name.

Marion Minkwintz, owner of Sugar Magnolia Cafe in Aiken, found that out by surprise when she named her establishment after a Grateful Dead song.

“It’s is amazing how that network of people finds their way in here,” she laughed. “And then some old ladies are like, ‘That’s such a nice Southern name,’ and it is!”

The duality of the cafe’s name, along with the eclectic menu that combines old — sometimes campy — favorites with newer twists, has helped Minkwintz build a strong and reliable clientele since the cafe opened in December.

“Since Aiken is such an eclectic mix of people, we wanted to incorporate a lot of different choices,” she said. It seemed to work: “Literally, I opened my doors and people came in.”

Regular Wayne Bowman began stopping in for coffee and stayed. Then one day he requested a sandwich that the restaurant didn’t list on its menu: “It’s called a ‘Mozzone,’” he said. They devised it for him and he ate it at their counter for weeks.

“Then one day he called me over: ‘This is the guy!’” Minkwintz said, with a wide smile. “His name was Rick Bozzone.”

Bowman got the name wrong initially, but Bozzone made sure the sandwich was done right, even drawing a diagram that Minkwintz keeps on file. One day she’ll frame it. The sandwich finally made the menu and is called, appropriately, “The Bozzone.” It’s a relatively simple item — an open-face toasted bagel with a choice of meat and cheese, an egg, and topped with a tomato — but it’s a popular item on their breakfast menu.

Their offerings stretch from the beginning of the day tothe end, a three-meal menu that ranges from French Toast to Philly Cheesesteaks and everything in between. Popular items include their Reuben, the Bleu Cranberry Salad and their distinctive Sugar Magnolia Chicken Walnut Salad.

But they might best be known for reviving a nostalgic dish that can’t be had anywhere else in the area: The Hot Brown. It originated at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1923 and became a favorite among diners and Kentucky Derby-goers. The Hot Brown is a two slices oftoast with turkey and ham, smothered in Mornay sauce, cheese, tomatoes and broiled. When it was created, turkey was something reserved for holiday feasts, so it in combination with the caloric and creamy Mornay seemed a decadent celebration.

Diners at Sugar Magnolia Cafe agree, making it one of their top orders.

And even though food is at the forefront of Minkwintz’s business, she wants the cafe to be a comfortable place for people to congregate. After all, she does hold an undergraduate degree in hospitality management from Eastern Illinois University. She spent years working in restaurants in Chicago and with the Marriott Corporation, and has established a charming space inside the main street storefront, all exposed brick walls and light wood with audible but not overwhelming music piping in over the speakers.

But she actually came to Aiken to practice as a doctor of chiropractic. A non-compete clause in a contract forced her to find some other way to fill her time, so she chose to go back into the business she knew so well.

“I figured I could step away once management was in place,” she said.

But she plans on leaving her mark with the amenities the restaurant offers. First of all, she made a point of having an outlet installed at every table. That’s so people who use the location’s free wireless internet access don’t have to rely on sometimes unpredictable battery power. They also deliver to downtown businesses, and donate 25 cents of every pint of Hook & Ladder beers that the shop sells to the Southeastern Firefighters’ Burn Foundation.

She’s looking to arrange for acoustic musicians to perform in evenings and on weekends, and keeps a store of art on the walls from local artists.

“We don’t take any commissions. We just want to be an outlet to expose people to local art,” she said.

And she wants to grow her business, of course. As Aiken continues to grow, she foresees that the clean and quietly serviced Sugar Magnolia Cafe will grow with it.

Sugar Magnolia Cafe
316 Richland Ave., Aiken


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