My Favourite Room: It's horses for courses
Love at first sight at 42 meant food tycoon Emer Purcell had to extend her home. She tells Mary O'Sullivan how she went from being a singleton to a wife and mum-of-three in just four years. Photography by Tony Gavin
Emer Purcell has three passions in life, two of which -- her children and her horses -- are evident in the photographs on the walls of her chic home in Dublin's Clontarf. The third is confined to her office. Only the odd basket or random velvet-covered box betrays any suggestion that she spends her days sourcing the contents for the superb hampers which form the basis of her third passion. This is Hampers & Co -- the business Emer runs with her partner, Alan Metcalfe.
Though Tipperary-born Emer came, as she cheerfully admits, to children late in life -- "42 and no kids, 46 and three under three" -- horses were always part of her life, first as a child, then professionally, but a chance remark led her to examine her career choice and turn instead to the hamper business.
The daughter of well-known meat baron, the late Michael Purcell, of Purcell Meats, Emer trained National Hunt racehorses as a career, with enormous success. She loved the work and had loads of winners, but something her mother said to her when Emer was 30 struck a chord. "She said I was beginning to look like a horse and walk like a horse," Emer says with a laugh. She does hasten to add that her mother, who died tragically in a fire soon after the remark, was a light-opera singer and a great character and, so, was given to melodramatics, but nonetheless it did affect her. "I remember that day. It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Emer admits. "Anyway, there were things I wanted to do and see."
She gave up the training and went to work in a pub/restaurant in Schull called An Tighe. "In winter, with 500 people in the village and 14 pubs, we were our own best customers. For something to do, I started to put together packages of wine, smoked salmon, and local cheeses and display them on the dresser in the pub. People bought them," she recalls. But it didn't really click at that point that it might be a good business.
Instead, Emer went to China for nine months to study equine acupuncture, but the hamper business followed her. China was the ideal place to help her develop it, as it's great for packaging. However, she was initially a reluctant hamper maker. "That business followed me, rather than me pursuing it. It's seasonal, so I was in China from January to September, and when I came back I started getting calls asking me was I doing the hampers again. I now had the connection to China, and I got my packaging there. I put huge emphasis on attractive packaging," explains Emer.
When she kept getting repeat customers, she realised she might as well turn her stables and barn in Tipperary into warehousing. It started 19 years ago and, during the good days, the corporate business was phenomenal, but since that died, she has had to find new angles.
"This year I tendered for the Lottery hampers and I won, which was great. I've had to take the business in a new direction, so I also do baby gifts, birthday gifts, new-home hampers -- we design hampers around individual needs. I also do huge online business. 'Whatever the reason, whatever the season', is our mantra," she explains.
Her core business still centres around Christmas, and she will be taking a stand at the forthcoming Taste of Christmas to showcase her superb range of hampers, which are made up of delectable goodies from all over Ireland and the continent. "I keep it luxurious -- produce that you're not going to see on the supermarket shelves, and I like to pack so people enjoy the surprise," Emer says. To deal with Christmas demand, she takes on 40 extra warehouse staff .
Of course, a key member of her team is her partner, Alan, who deals with all the logistics. He also deals with staff and helps with design, yet it's a far cry from the work he was doing as an engineer when they first met, six years ago, on the ski slopes of Austria. At the time, Emer was in a 15-year on-and-off relationship. "We were having lots of fun. I didn't think I was looking to settle until I met Alan. It was love at first sight for both of us; love at first sight in my 40s," she marvels.
Though Alan is Irish, he was based abroad, and he was just finishing off a job when they met. Emer says, laughing, that she offered Alan a three-month contract on the hampers. They've been together ever since. She found herself pregnant with Michael, now six, six months after herself and Alan met. "It wasn't an accident. When I met Alan, I thought, 'There's a man I'd like to have children with.' I also needed a partner in my business, it was perfect, perfect," she says. Michael was followed by the twins, Daisy and Charlie, and two adorable boxer pups, Molly and Sassy, complete the family.
It hasn't all been plain sailing; like many home owners, they bought at the top of the market in 2006 and were treated badly by their bank when it came to renovating what was a neglected wreck. However, Emer is philosophical. "I travel so much and I see real deprivation. My children are healthy, that's all that matters," she says.
The house is red brick, semi-detached, and it dates from the Forties. Emer enlarged it by adding two new bays, one on top of the other, incorporating the space of the outdoor side passage into the house and making a spacious hall and utility area. She also added a superb kitchen/living extension. Downstairs also has a family room, a drawing room and an office, while upstairs there are four bedrooms and a bathroom. Her architect, Denis Gilbert, came up with lots of good ideas, and Emer had plenty of input herself: she has a good eye. She's also a problem solver, as can be seen from the terrific kitchen. "There's a bit of a story in the kitchen. I wanted a painted kitchen and ordered it and paid for it, but the company went into liquidation and then disappeared. The structure had been put in, but they had left me without worktops. I got on to the granite people myself, Mourne Granite, who had cut the granite, but they hadn't been paid, and they agreed to give it to me for half price," she notes, delighted with her solution.
These days Emer doesn't have a whole lot of time to enjoy the kitchen -- the business doesn't leave her much time for anything. She hasn't been on a horse for months. The only passion she has time for her is family, but that's fine by Emer. "I used to come home to a lonely house and often thought it would be nice to have children waiting for me and now there's Alan and my three little children and it's lovely," she says.
Hampers & Co will be participating in Taste of Christmas, which takes place from Friday to Sunday, November 26-28, in the Convention Centre Dublin. Sponsored Marks & Spencer, and in association with LIFE, Taste of Christmas is the season's finest food, drink and Christmas-shopping festival. Tickets are on sale now, from €19.50. See www.tasteofchristmas.ie