With its 2,300-square-foot rustic pavilion, a 150-year-old cabin renovated with modern amenities for weekend stays and a historic post office of the long-gone town the site is named for today, Sugarneck is a tucked-away gem near the Lee-Harnett county line north of Broadway.
Owners John Cawley and Alicia Allen never intended to mold the site into one of the most popular wedding venues in North Carolina (a surprisingly good number of local venues also happened into the wedding industry by accident). It was only six years ago when Cawley — the former chief operating officer for Houston-based Music World Entertainment, the management company for Beyoncé Knowles and 70-plus other recording artists — was approached by a friend to use the site for a very small wedding and reception.
“We told them, ‘Look, nothing’s here. Nothing’s been renovated.’ And they said, ‘I don’t care.’ It’s the perfect spot,” recalls Cawley. “And they did it, and we had a blast. And literally the following week, we had somebody else approach us. From word of mouth, it just spread.”
In the following years, the pavilion was built, the cabin became a getaway and Sugarneck became a wedding destination. Today, Cawley and Allen host 40-plus events (the majority of them weddings) and welcome more than 5,000 guests annually. Even in a pandemic, there’s little downtime. In fact, having 400 acres of open-aired space is one of the draws in the COVID-19 era.
“People are discovering Sanford, and they’re coming out here for a variety of reasons,” Cawley says. “With us, you’re getting space and privacy. We’re on 400 acres — you can turn up the music and be as loud as you want. Then there’s the natural beauty, which a lot of venues around here have as well. With us, you come out here for a full weekend, and the site is yours. This is your home.”
Hannah and Nate Fausz exchanged vows in front of about 100 people at Sugarneck back in December on a gorgeous late-fall afternoon. Fausz said she chose the venue because of its charm, its rustic appearance and for its history (she’s a self-proclaimed history buff who loved the idea of getting married near an old post office).
All of that aside, price also played a huge role in her choice. She says Sugarneck was more affordable than even some inferior venues in Chatham and Wake counties.
“It’s also what they were able to offer,” Fausz says. “The owners basically handled everything — and everybody they brought in was a local business owner. The woman who made our cake taught me at West Lee Middle School and worked with my dad. We worked with Alicia, who was amazing — so willing to listen, asked us how we met, listened to our story and everything was just so comfortable. She talked to us like she knew us forever.”
The big day went off without a hitch. The weather wasn’t too cold (or too hot). The setting sun was a bright orange. The guests were entertained. There was a bar …
“There’s nothing they could have done to make it go any smoother,” Fausz says. “It went very well. No issues at all, really. I mean, my husband’s groomsman forgot his tie, but that was about it.”
The venue, Fausz says, played a huge role in the perfect day. In fact, she says it’s the second most important for a bride’s big day.
“The dress is the dress. It’s the most important thing. You want that perfect dress, something that makes you feel other-worldly. Like a Disney princess,” she says. “But the venue and the setting, that’s right up there. If the dress is No. 1, then the venue is a definite No. 2. And Sugarneck had everything we wanted.”
Cawley and Allen have worked hard to transform Sugarneck from the work-in-progress it was six years ago into the in-demand wedding venue and corporate retreat destination it is today. And that work goes well beyond the significant renovations they’ve made over the years. According to Cawley, the husband and wife team have built strong relationships with local business leaders and local vendors to offer the best possible experience.
Sanford, he says, has become an important asset and a big reason for their success.
“It’s become a symbiotic relationship,” Cawley says. “We’re really tight with the [Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce], and every event we host is a positive promotion of Sanford. We’ve met at least a half dozen brides who ended up moving here. We’ve had so many people comment on how cool our downtown is or how great some of the local restaurants are. It’s a growing city that has a lot to offer, yet still has many of those small-town values people are looking for.”
Cawley and Allen, who live in Raleigh with their 7-year-old daughter, have both quit their full-time gigs to focus all of their time and energy on Sugarneck. Their involvement in each event ranges from planning and budgeting to bussing the tables.
“You have to have a passion for this and enjoy meeting new people,” Cawley says. “You’re helping create this special day, and it has to be an experience for everybody there, right? Because that’s their day.
“You can’t be hands-off in a business like this. You need to be there with them and be there for them. Imagine 150 people are coming to your venue, and you’re there talking to them, feeling the love and becoming a part of their big day. Then they leave and tell people about their experience, and those people call us to learn more. We actually don’t do much advertising, because everything in this business is word of mouth and shared experiences.”
“Everybody has different ideas of what they want their wedding to be,” Allen adds. “But I think most of all, they want it to be special. And they want it relaxed. And that’s what you get with us … a relaxed time with your family and friends. Right? Who wants a stuffy wedding?”