Bright purple lights hang down from the ceiling and popular new music plays as guests devour the fan favorite beer cheese pretzel.
The Secret Elephant, a new restaurant that recently opened Uptown, features a wide variety of appetizers and drinks. It replaced Wild Bistro, a business that struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Desi Durkin, The Secret Elephant’s owner and general manager, was the real estate agent for the owners of Wild Bistro before they had to shut down. The owners had moved to the United States from China and spoke very little English.
“To my knowledge, I’m the only real estate agent in Oxford that speaks Mandarin,” Durkin said.
By speaking Mandarin, Durkin and the previous owners were able to communicate. Soon after, they became good friends.
When the time came to sell Wild Bistro, Durkin was asked to help.
“I was out there working, trying to help them sell it during COVID, and there were no buyers,” Durkin said. “[So,] I started giving them suggestions on what they could do to it to turn it into something more profitable.”
As Durkin was brainstorming and coming up with ideas, the family decided the restaurant space should be hers.
“I said that I had no intention of opening a restaurant, but they said, ‘Your ideas are just so wonderful,’” Durkin said. “At that time, I wasn’t making very much money because of COVID. So, they said that they would remodel and put all of my ideas into fruition, and I took it over.”
The first order of business was to come up with a name for the restaurant. Making it unique was Durkin’s only criteria for a suitable name.
“Someone threw out [the idea] Secret Elephant, and I fell in love with it,” said Durkin. “So, I went out to Facebook, and I let the community vote on the name. Secret Elephant was the outlier.”
Durkin originally wanted the restaurant to be fondue-based but said it was impossible to do this while following COVID-19 regulations. Instead, she decided to make it into an upscale bar.
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Durkin expressed her gratitude to Ted Wood, owner of multiple Uptown establishments like Left Field Tavern, for guiding her in the right direction. Ann Kamphaus, owner of Church Street Social, also offered her support as a businesswoman, despite the fact that they are local competitors.
“Ann Kamphaus suggested to me to just make it your own. Just make it someplace you would like to be,” Durkin said. “The theme came from a place I would enjoy being, and I’m a girly girl. And, I like fufu things. So, I created a slightly fufu atmosphere.”
Along with Durkin, the workers and customers also enjoy the aesthetic of the restaurant. The purple lights and stone accents enhance the modern unique style.
Serena Lanum, a senior marketing major employed at the restaurant, said she enjoys everything about the job, especially the atmosphere.
“Even though it is a bar, it doesn’t feel like a bar,” Lanum said. “So, it’s really nice, and I love all my coworkers.”
Some students said the bar is a great addition for the community and predicted it will be around for a long time.
“I think it will have more customers than what the Wild Bistro had,” said Peyton Townsend, a sophomore psychology major. “It’s because the food is great, and drinks, and customer service.”
While most students seem to love everything about the restaurant's current vibe, Durkin is far from completing her vision.
“I want to do a small stage and have open mic nights for poetry, prose, improv and comedy,” Durkin said. “[It will be] for anyone who wants to participate. There are so many talented young people that deserve to have their five minutes of fame.”
Artwork will also be a central part of the interior. Durkin said she’s hiring a local artist to paint a mural in the women’s bathrooms. This way, the obligatory bathroom selfie will have a much better background.
Elsewhere in the bar, Durkin said other artists will go through a rotation where they will get the chance to hang their artwork on the wall and sell it.
Just like the fondue idea, though, all these future goals have been pushed back due to the pandemic.
“We are at the bottom end of the food supply chain,” Durkin said. “When I do try to order, we can get some stuff, but we can’t get other stuff. There is still, to this day, a toilet paper supply shortage because of the supply chain.”
Despite these setbacks, Durkin is thankful for the customer approval.
“The student response to the atmosphere has been utterly amazing,” Durkin said. “A lot of alumni come in because they want to see what’s new. So, even when we are at capacity, I will let some people in just to look.”
After initial financial issues and struggles with the pandemic, Durkin looks back on her work with satisfaction and appreciation.
“I didn’t expect with our limited menu to take off as fast and furious as it did or to become as popular as it did,” Durkin said. “I don’t even have any artwork on the walls, for Christ’s sake. I turned a restaurant that completely failed and was losing $300 a day into something that is, at least for now, sustainable, and that I think will be around for a very, very long time.”
With tears in her eyes, she finds herself surrounded by love from the community and her staff.
“It’s not work for me,” Durkin said. “It’s a labor of love. And that’s why I call everyone who comes in [The Secret Elephant] tribe.”