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Voices of the pandemic: hostel team reinvent to survive, with wine in mind

Writers

  • Gretchen Kessler

29/04/2021 10.45am

It should come as no surprise that 2020 was not a particularly good year for the hostel industry. For the famous Budapest Party Hostels, whose success had earned them numerous awards including Best in Hungary, it was a death knell. Two of the expats involved, Suze Collings and Michael 'Smike' Letwinsky, suddenly found themselves faced with a bleak future, and asking the question, “what is the next chapter in our lives?” As it would turn out, the answer was wine.

Suze and Smike outside the building which will become their wine tasting room and bar.

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

Suze and Smike are complete opposites. Suze bubbles with energy, a charismatic and gregarious UK expat who came to Budapest in 2007 on holiday and never left. Next to her, Smike is patient and composed, with a friendly face that reads of a natural inner calm. He came to the city in 2008, at the end of a three-month trip through Europe, and would be staying at Suze’s hostel. “We had a long correspondence over email,” Smike explains, “and by the time I arrived, I felt like I knew her, and skipped saying hi to friends to give her a hug”.


After the trip, Smike returned to Budapest for a teaching gig, but found himself more drawn to the hostel life. “When my contract was up, Suze suggested I work here,” he explains, and the rest is history.

The third member of the team, Renee Heard, could not attend the interview, but is an Australian born to a Hungarian mother who fled the '56 revolution. After spending a night at the hostel in 2011, she returned to Budapest and bonded with Suze over a mutual love of wine. They now co-own a house in Etyek – wine country. Says Suze, "We made a pact while drunk and I made her sign a contract on a napkin!" 

Renee with her daughter.

Photo: Bortodoor / Facebook

The success of the first hostel led to the opening of more locations – Carpe Noctem, Grandio, Vitae and Retox, which opened in 2011. And then of course, it was all over.

But that is not the end of the story. “We were working a side project,” Suze explains, “a project to introduce people to wine, and to make it fun. So many places here are unknowledgeable about wine, or too knowledgeable, and then it gets intimidating. We wanted to take people on a fun journey of discovering wine”.

The idea grew out of their Wine Mafia nights, an amateur wine-tasting session where comments like “it smells like wine” are perfectly acceptable observations. “The point is,” says Smike, “these are ordinary people drinking and judging the wine, so there are no experts, and no problems”. Once the pandemic shut down the hostels, that side project became their main focus. “Start a business in a country where you don’t speak the language, in a sector you don’t have experience in, in a pandemic,” Suze recalls thinking. “Great idea!”

The end goal is to have a sit-in wine shop where tastings will be held, as well as expanding their 'Bortodoor' service, where they send six bottles a month to clients, specifically tailored to their tastes.

“Look, we’re not the first wine club in town,” says Smike, “but I don’t think the other clubs want to know about you. They send out the wines and say, ‘here’s what you should like’. With us, we want to learn what you enjoy, and shape the experience. And your taste buds change over time, so we want to keep bringing you in to blind tastings, to see whether you still feel that way about a certain wine, and then we’ll change what we give you based on how your tastes change”.

Along with the wine club and tasting sessions, visitors will also have a wine passport, mapping out the 22 wine regions of Hungary, and beyond. “You can tick boxes for grape varieties that you have tried,” explains Suze. “And everyone can feel like they can come in here. If you want to have a conversation, we’re here – hopefully about wine, but it can be about anything,” she adds with a laugh.

Renee Heard sips a white wine.

Photo: Bortodoor / Facebook

Suze and Smike are hopeful that their years of experience in hospitality, combined with a love of wine and an element of fun, will bring in locals and visitors alike. A special feature embedded in their business model is to “drink the losses”, designed to bring all types of wine to the people. “Basically, we want people to be able to try everything. If that means you want to taste a top-shelf wine, then we’ll open it for you. And if we can’t sell the rest of it after that, then we will buy the bottle ourselves,” they explain.

Nervous about walking into a wine bar? Not here. “I love people,” Suze adds. “At the height of the hostels, we had 500 beds and 50 volunteers. Now we just want some friends to drink wine with!”

The building is under major renovations now, and Suze and Smike hope to have operations up and running by the time the city reopens fully. Currently Bortodoor has a Facebook and Instagram page which will be regularly updated, with a website to follow.

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