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Into The Fire: Dan & Jessica Purnell, Elixir

David Blake talks Azerbaijani parties, seven-star hotels and not opening in NQ with the couple behind Elixir

Written by . Published on March 13th 2014.


Into The Fire: Dan & Jessica Purnell, Elixir
 

NEXT TO a bookies and a fried chicken shop is just about the last place you’d want to open a bar, or perhaps the ideal place, depending on clientele.

One day I’m a plumber, the next I’m a janitor, then I’m a councillor, the next day I’m back to owner. I haven’t got time to think about what else I’d be doing because I’m already doing a hundred jobs.

Before Elixir opened in its shady covered hideaway unit opposite the John Ryland Library on Deansgate, there was Bar123, Manchester’s least visited, least appealing and least remembered bar. Come and gone in less time than it takes to say, ‘I don’t fancy it in there’.

The space seemed doomed, destined for a Domino's. But as Jessica Purnell later says, “Anything can be turned around with some tender love and care.” She then broke out into some Jimmie Rodgers.

Elixir, DeansgateElixir, Deansgate

Turned it around they have. Since opening at the back end of 2013, Elixir has gone from strength-to-strength. “We’re growing at 20% a week,” says Dan, Jessica’s husband and the bar-business engine behind the operation, “People have been surprised we’ve turned this place into what it is, because let’s be honest, before this place was a dump.”

He's right. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

Dan has spent most of his life in drinks. For a period he was in charge of beverages at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, ‘the world’s most luxurious hotel’ and the only seven-start hotel anywhere in the world (partly because seven-star isn’t even a real thing). He’s arranged and opened slick Manchester operations such as Neighbourhood, Southern Eleven and Manchester 235’s Vega Lounge as well as organising A-list operations across the world.

No surprise then that Elixir is beginning to carve out a place for itself as one of the best destination bars in Manchester.

Dan, Jessica, where've you come from?

Jessica: Well, Bolton, can you not tell by my accent? We have two businesses, this place (Elixir) and Escapade bars.

Dan: At Escapade we do events and consultancy, so in the last three years we set-up, trained and opened Neighbourhood, Vega Lounge in Manchester 235 and Southern Eleven. When the client’s happy with the unit we walk away. We also work for Hilton Worldwide, we’ve opened places from Spain to Abu Dhabi to Azerbaijan.

Hilton, AzerbaijanHilton, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan? From Spinningfields to the old Soviet Union?

D: I didn’t go myself. The Prime Minister basically owned this hotel (wink wink) and his brother ran it. Well, as soon as they got there they were in a helicopter and landing on the PM's brother's house. It was either an initiation or a trial run, but they had to throw a party at this guy's estate first.

Sounds legit. Tell us about Escapade...

J: At our core we have around ten staff, but we use top bar tenders from across the city.

D: We must have 100 bartenders at our disposal, we don't just do the UK, we have an office in Majorca. We threw the Champions League final and the X-Factor wrap-party.

Escapade with some guy called Barry StylesEscapade with some guy called Barry Styles

How'd you come to be where you are?

D: After college I worked for Greenall pub group, opening Premier Inn bars, Premier Lodges, you know, places with two meals for a tenner. After that I managed the Sugar Lounge on Deansgate Locks in it's heyday. We had Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz in there.

J: The Locks were completely different back then, it was a go-to destination, a celeb hangout. After that we moved to Dubai for an experiment.

Experiment?

D: I became Beverages Manager at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, the world's only seven-star hotel. It must be the best hotel in the world, the standards are impeccable. Unbelievable.

J: We married in Dubai, started a family and I've mostly been at home until Elixir came to be. That's when I came back on board.

Burj Al Arab hotel, DubaiBurj Al Arab hotel, Dubai

Why did you want a permanent unit?

D: Elixir is only about a third of our business, the rest is Escapade in a lock-up with an office in Bolton. But we needed a shop window. This heightens our profile, it's a great location on Deansgate, right by Spinningfields and where it's happening. So when our clients ask what we can do, we can say look at this bar, this is all us, it's ours.

J: But as well as that, Dan started as a bar-back at sixteen, it's what he's all about, it sounds cheesy but it's been a dream of his to have his own place. So when the opportunity came we had to take it.

But why this unit? It hasn't fared well in the past...

D: We wanted to be near enough to what was going on around Spinningfields and Great Northern, but also a place that was more reserved, more understated. You'll find that the best bars in places like London and New York are the ones that you don't know are there. You hear about them. You knock on a big door, walk through some curtains, then it's like BAM, 'Woah. What is this place?' We're trying that with our big door, we're not finished with the entrance yet.

J: Being a small-to-medium sized company there's only a very few locations we could have done this. This is all our own money.

D: The only other place we could have done this is the Northern Quarter, but everybody is doing it there. If we were tucked away up there in some back alley our clients wouldn't see us. Spinningfields is out of our league, we haven't got the money. So we had to think smart, where can we go where we’ll still get a bite of Spinningfields but also deliver something different, something special?

Somewhere in there is ElixirSomewhere in there is Elixir

So what's Elixir's point of difference?

J: It’s about our deliverance. To compete with the big boys you have to be offering something more, everyone that comes in here should feel special, feel like they're getting something different. There's so much time and care gone into that menu. We want to offer more than people expect. To surprise them.

D: Look anyone can throw together a cosmopolitan. We're offering something you probably haven't seen before. Some people may think it's a bit twatty, ask 'why are you doing that to a drink?' The theatre isn't for everybody. But we're offering an experience. I mean look at that, and that’s just a cup of tea...

Elixir's teaElixir's tea

Has Elixir taken off as you imagined?

J: We’ve been humbled by how well we’ve been received. People love it.

D: We’re currently growing at 20% a week. We’ve never been about money-grabbing as a business, it’s about delivering a product, the money will come. That’s why we’ve got twelve staff on in here on a Saturday night, many other bars don’t have that level of service.

J: That’s Dan with the figures, I’m about how many people are smiling and tweeting.

How hands on are you?

J: We've backed off a bit recently, we’ve got a fantastic management team in here, Garry Foy ex-manager of Panacea, Frankie opened up Cloud 23 years ago. They don’t need us here anymore but we enjoy it. Some of the staff call us Mum and Dad, there's a real family, all pull together atmosphere. From the menu, to the decor, to the artwork, to the free holistic water, they've all put a bit in to Elixir.

What have you enjoyed most about opening your first bar?

J: For me it’s a creative outlet, seeing a clock in a shop and thinking that'll go nicely there with that.

D: I've enjoyed what we've brought to the city, but can I be honest? I’ve not really enjoyed the opening process. It can be very frustrating. Let’s say you paint your house, you take a step back, have a look and say great. For me, I'm standing back and seeing gaps. Because it's your own you're never fully happy. People ask me, 'Do you know what you've created here?' And I say, 'I don't know yet.' I've never sat in here and just had a beer.

Elixir's barElixir's bar

Had any particularly crazy moments?

D: Just as we were about to sign for the lease I got a call from my sister saying, ‘You do realise you can’t open a bar in that site don’t you?’ She told us the planning for the site was for a shop, not a bar, it'd never been changed. By this point we'd invested a load of money into design and development. Pannone Solicitors upstairs, who own the building, just said 'The Council won't block it, it'll be fine'. We said 'No actually it won't be fine, what if they do and we've signed the lease?' So we wouldn't sign. They said they'd give the unit to someone else. But we wouldn't budge, so we came to an arrangement until the changes went through.

J: I had a weird one. I'd been thinking in my head of a logo for some time, but hadn't told anyone anything about it. Then Garry drew up a logo for us and it was exactly the logo I'd been imagining. Really strange. Dan will tell me to shut up, but there was something going on there.

Ever wanted to pack it all in?

J: No, no, no.

D: Honestly? Of course I bloody have. I run two businesses, although there's an overlap, both businesses require full business hours so it can pile up. Now we're three months in it’s the best thing we ever did, but two weeks in was another story.

Believe it or not, there's a drink under thereBelieve it or not, there's a drink under there

What would you be doing if it wasn't this?

J: Working with kids is the only other thing that lights me up. Or maybe a little café.

D: I really don’t know. I’ve never done anything else. The thing is that this industry is so diverse, one day I’m a plumber, the next I’m a janitor, then I’m a councillor, the next day I’m back to Director. I haven’t got time to think about what else I’d be doing because I’m already doing a hundred jobs.

What do you do with your time off?

J: We try to have Sundays as a family, go walking around our home in Horwich, Bolton. But Dan doesn't have time off, we'll walk past some used cars and he'll be wondering if he should start selling them.

D: We’ve always tried to have the right balance but recently I think we’ve lost that. We haven’t had time. We want to get that back.

J: It's like counselling this. Can you come every week?

'Jess, Jess, what dya reckon?''Jess, Jess, what dya reckon?'

Do you have favourite spots to go out in the city?

J: What me? No I’ve never been out, I'm a mother. I think I may have been out once ten years ago.

D: I’m proud of what we did for Neighbourhood, they were going up against the big boys of Spinningfields, Living Ventures, and they're competing. The food at Australasia is amazing. There's a place in Notting Hill called Electric, they've got a cinema upstairs, it's in a tunnel and the chef's cooking on the bar in front. It's another level.

Who inspires you?

J: I pull a lot from my Mum. She was a holistic therapist and struggled with cancer for years. She passed away near the time that Elixir was coming about, she was very spiritual and I think some of that fed into this place. Andy P, our legend bartender, he thinks differently. He did a whole crystal healing course and started dishing out all these free crystal healing waters. Why not? Nobody else has that.

D: Dubai was a huge inspiration for me. The labour there is so cheap because they pull it from the third world, and these people have nothing, but they'll give you everything. Even putting a coaster down, they want to be doing it. They feel privileged to be there working.

There was this one Sri Lankan guy that bought his family a five bedroom house on the beach in Sri Lanka. He'd say that the hotel was like his God, because it took care of his family. He'd be on £150 basic with £1000 on top from tips. But they were so happy to be working, then you would be, he was like a millionaire.

The Burj: not too shabbyThe Burj: not too shabby

So, future plans...

D: We’re not driven by money and expansion. We need a break, and to make sure we're happy with this place. Gordon Ramsey said 'Make sure you do one thing right before moving on'. Don’t just do it well, do it fantastically.

J: We need to fine tune what we’ve got here. People ask us when we’re next opening up another one, a bigger one, I say, ‘Woah, give us a minute, we’ve only just figured out our bin collection times here.’

Elixir, 123 Deansgate, M3 2BY. 0161 222 8588.

Visit the Elixir site here.

ElixirElixir

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jrsteeveMarch 13th 2014.

Went a few weeks ago, on a Saturday I think, really nice interior but the drinks thing was a bit of a faff. I ordered something that came with 3-4 pipettes but not an explanation of why/what to do, plus the menu was barely legible with the dimmed lights. Nice drink but I ruined it with a little too much of one of the pipettes. I also don't know how this would work when it's busy as there aren't many tables at all, or ledges to lean on as the drink comes in two parts. Not surprised they have so many staff on a Saturday, the drinks aren't quick to make. Only real let down was the toilets were pretty messy, as if it'd been a good few hours since the last time they were checked. If they're going for high end then this needs sorting. Otherwise I'd certainly pop back, and worth it for visitors as a bit of an experience.

AnonymousMarch 13th 2014.

The Burj is a shiny, late nineties crap nest, catering to Russians and small Chinese men with eastern European hookers in tow. They do throw together a good bevvy though and all for 25 quid. Hes right about the "slave labour" though. It provides for so many of the workers families, so lets all learn to love it.

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