Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy in downtown Tuscaloosa is a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s because the offerings and the ambiance change from hour to hour – all day, every day.
The place starts early each morning as a juice bar and transitions to a bar bar at night. It seems seamless; it’s certainly clever, with some of the same healthy ingredients morphing into different dishes and drinks. For instance, the fresh-pressed juices that fuel an easy, quick breakfast or provide a midafternoon pick-me-up are mixed with compatible spirits for a healthy happy hour to wind down the day. In between, there’s a full-on lunch with wraps, grain bowls and paninis.
Ken Cupp, who owns Sage with his wife, Cheyenne, says, “For me, Sage is a lifestyle.” The multiconcept juice bar, lunch spot and cocktail lounge offers a lot of fun options, he adds. “My wife and I are both passionate about healthy foods, and that’s something that started this journey. But we also like to have a good time.”
The two built out their space in Tuscaloosa’s Temerson Square to be a changeable place.
As breakfast segues into lunch, it’s a light and airy cafe where sunlight from the big front windows illuminates the exposed brick walls, comfortable counter seating and the colorful fruits at the juice bar. When afternoon slides into evening, they turn the lights down, change the music and the soft sofa seating begins filling up. While you can get a cocktail whenever you want (Ken says he’s not judging), at night the juice bar becomes an intimate speakeasy where signature cocktails, a variety of gin drinks and several martinis are made with house bitters and syrups and other fresh ingredients and served alongside wines by the glass and bottle and local and regional craft beers in bottles, cans and on tap. There are nonalcoholic drinks available, too, including kombucha on draft and Sage’s signature lavender lemonade.
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The entire menu at Sage – the fresh juices, smoothies, paninis, wraps, grain bowls and signature cocktails – reflects the couple’s personal experience. Ken, an Alabama native who went to the University of Alabama, is a mixologist as well as restaurateur. In upstate New York, he had an Italian restaurant with his father-in-law, who is an Italian executive chef. Cheyenne, who studied marketing and graphic design at the University at Buffalo, went to yoga school and was inspired to start juicing. So, they opened a juice bar on the side.
They moved to Tuscaloosa in 2019, opened their new place in June 2020 and called it Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy. You don’t have to surreptitiously knock on a door three times to get in, even with the Prohibition-themed name. “We liked the way the word sounded,” Ken says, “and it just flowed a little bit better to me than ‘Sage Juice Bar & Bar.’”
Even so, they opened during a trying time.
“It definitely was a journey,” Ken says, “but we made it through all the obstacles and we’re still afloat. I’m proud of that and confident that we’ve been able to be a stable point for Tuscaloosa and a rising star in a market where I’ve seen a lot has changed since I went to school down here over a decade ago.”
Besides, Ken says, “The time is always right to be healthy.” And at Sage, that time is all day long and long into the night.
During juice bar hours, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they serve a variety of bright, good-for-you combinations like Immunity (romaine, spinach, kale, cucumber, apple, lemon, pineapple and ginger) and Saving Grace (pineapple, apple, mint, coconut water and cayenne) and Sage Punch (watermelon, apple, pineapple and orange). These juices are blended with frozen fruit into nutrient-dense “hybrids” – a cross between a juice and a smoothie.
The traditional smoothies, blended with frozen fruit instead of ice, are popular, too, especially the Cabana-Berry with banana, strawberry, pineapple and coconut water and the Heavy Metal Detox with wild blueberries, banana, cilantro, orange juice, barley grass powder, spirulina and Atlantic dulse.
These same smoothies become more of a meal when made into smoothie bowls with the addition of crunchy, colorful toppings. “Our smoothie bowls are works of art,” Ken says.
He named the beautifully composed smoothie bowls after the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl is especially popular with its rolled oats, blue spirulina, vanilla and almond milk topped with granola, banana, blueberries, kiwi, coconut flakes, local honey, chia seeds and almond butter. The Rose Bowl has an açai berry base with granola, strawberries, raspberries, mint, coconut flakes, local honey and chia seeds.
For lunch, there are toasts like classic avocado amped up a bit with chili flakes, black pepper and sea salt. The Botanical Boost salad is a mix of kale, spinach and arugula with feta, strawberries and candied pecans.
Heartier lunch options include paninis like The Heart of Dixie with sliced turkey, garlic aioli, roasted red peppers, gouda and arugula on ciabatta. The grilled cheese is a popular combination of gouda, American cheese and cheddar on sourdough bread with dill pickles and homemade garlic aioli.
In fact, all the sauces and drizzles are made in-house, Ken says. The sweet-savory homemade peanut sauce is what makes the Thai Chicken Wrap, with its cashews and kale and cilantro, so popular. A chipotle aioli complements the Carnivore Wrap, which features salami, pepperoni, ham, provolone, extra virgin olive oil and oregano.
The pretty grain bowls all start with a base of brown rice and quinoa, but toppings range from sweet potatoes to lentils to chicken to black beans and more with sweet ginger, creamy Italian or cilantro-lime drizzles. You also can create your own grain bowl by choosing a protein, two vegetables, a cheese and a drizzle.
A “boosted brunch” on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. features a breakfast panini; powered-up classic toast with avocado spread, lots of pepper and scrambled egg; and a Sunrise grain bowl with feta and scrambled eggs and Italian drizzle.
Ken sources his fresh ingredients locally whenever possible; he gets free-range eggs and more from Jason Waits of Black Sheep Farms of Coker. “Jason and I sit down once a season, and he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’ He’ll pull out his notepad … and I’ll say, ‘I can use this or that,’ and he’ll plant rows and bring it to me.” It doesn’t get much fresher than that, he adds.
And that’s important, because even the 4-7 happy hour is healthy at Sage when fresh juices are spiked with liquors to create vitamin-rich signature cocktails. You’ll get things like the Intoxicated Immunity made with Tito’s and the Immunity juice combination or the Blurred Optics with pineapple vodka and the Optic Boost juice of carrots, apple, kale and ginger. During Sunday’s brunch, the Saving Grace and Sage Punch juice combinations become mimosas with the addition of prosecco.
Open seven days a week, Sage employs between 15 and 20 people who are as important to its success as the food and drinks. All are well-versed in the ingredients of the healthy lifestyle they fuel each day. Ken says everyone at Sage can explain the benefits of the products “in a way that’s not intimidating; they can go as in-depth as you’d like.”
When asked what Sage does best, Ken says it’s a combination of things: an inviting ambiance, a consistent product and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. “As an entrepreneur, I call it the ‘trifecta of the restaurant industry,’” he says.
“I tell that to my staff all the time. ‘Those are the three controllables.’ You can go to a lot of places that maybe have one or two out of the three. I’m like, hey, why not strive for all three? I’m passionate that we do do all three of those.”
The restaurant business can be a tough industry with its high moments of intensity, so it’s important to be passionate about what you do, Ken adds. “If we can control that, and the customers are happy because of those three intangibles, then, ultimately, my day-to-day is going to be happier and I’m going to have staff that’s happy. I hear it all the time from my staff. They love coming to work, and that’s just a really cool thing to create in the restaurant industry.”
Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy
2324 Fourth St.
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
Juice bar: Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cocktail lounge: Monday-Wednesday, open to 10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, open to midnight
Sunday hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)