Spend a few minutes with Danny Litin, and it’s clear that Passionflower is aptly named. The 27-year-old bubbles with enthusiasm when discussing the purported benefits of the herbs, fungi, bee pollen, hemp, nuts, and berries he uses to create delicious smoothie drinks and bowls, kombucha-based elixirs, and tea-based concoctions that range from $3.50 to $9.50. He’s passionate, too, about his partnerships with Alchemy, a local fitness juggernaut, and artisanal food and beverage companies including Feral Beverage Co., Big Watt, Peace Coffee, K’ul Chocolate, and Gray Duck Chai.
Litin owns Passionflower along with Dunn Brothers co-founder Chris Eilers, and he runs the cafe with his brother Max Litin and friend Zane Hill. We sat down with the energetic entrepreneur to get the story behind Passionflower, taste a few items, and learn why functional beverages are giving smoothies a run for their money.
HEAVY TABLE: How did this whole thing start?
DANNY LITIN: I was living in Colorado for a few years, immersed in a culture of arts, music — a culture that was very progressive. I would frequent these spots that had extensive beverage programs that weren’t alcohol-focused, and I loved that I could go to a place on a Friday night that was dark, kinda dingy, and just brought a really cool crowd together. And we could drink these beverages that would make you feel something, but not intoxicated. They could make you feel uplifted or whatever. So that was just kind of the basis for falling in love with the concept.
HEAVY TABLE: Were they billed as non-alcoholic bars?
LITIN: Kind of — like, “Elixir Bars.” They were gathering hubs of like-minded individuals. But one thing that I didn’t like was that they were culturally exclusive, in the sense that they were, I’d call them, “hippie culture.” Dreadlocks, and everyone smelled like incense and, you know, psychedelic art on the wall! Which was cool, but if that’s not your thing, you’d feel kind of outcast being there. So that was just kind of my first clue into, “There’s something there.” I loved being a part of this, but there were still some barriers to entry. Everything was super expensive, too, because these ingredients are exclusive, so every drink you get is $10. It tastes great, and I feel great, but there’s still something difficult about that.
So, then I came back to Minneapolis, after my girlfriend had gotten pregnant with our son, and I started studying at the University of Minnesota. I ended up creating my own major through the multidisciplinary studies program with Dennis McKenna, who’s a world-renowned ethno-pharmacologist. His brother Terrence McKenna was a huge psychedelic advocate from the ’80s and ’90s. So he just had this huge cultural bubble around him! And every time I would meet him, he would tell me to come check out this conference in Madison or come down to Peru, or whatever it was. He became my mentor. My focus was ethno-pharmacology, anthropology, and art. It was basically the study of traditional plant medicines and the culture surrounding them.
When I graduated, I worked with Dennis at his life sciences company [Symbio] for a year. It was the three founders — and me. I learned “Oh, these guys are just dudes.” They’re just guys, but they’re very passionate about something, and they’ve got a very clear vision that they’re trying to achieve. And so that was kind of my inspiration. Then I went to an entrepreneurial event in Minneapolis and I ended up meeting Chris Eilers, and I told him [about Passionflower] — it could be “like a Starbucks, but for functional beverages.” He was like, “I could talk to you for the rest of the time, but there’s 30 other people I need to talk to, so here’s my e-mail address; let’s connect.”
HEAVY TABLE: So, what’s your definition of “functionality”?
LITIN: Yeah, functionality. So, it does something for you. It gives you energy or makes you loosey-goosey, relaxed. There are so many more things, as humans, that we want to feel.
HEAVY TABLE: So functional beverages have an effect on your body or mind?
LITIN: Body or mind — yeah.
HEAVY TABLE: Great. You were talking about meeting Chris Eilers.
LITIN: Yeah, so we just started meeting up. And I would share where I was at, and he would give me some advice. And the more he saw how dedicated I was and how much energy I was putting into it, he was like, “I want to be a part of this.” So he offered to invest and become my business partner, which has been huge. It’s been a rich and beautiful relationship.
And then, while meeting with Chris, I got introduced to Alchemy. Chris and I were on a trajectory to open up our own shop, but we met Alchemy through a mutual friend. They were planning to put a smoothie shop in [their Highland Park location], but they hadn’t worked out the details. They saw my passion, my plan — and we fell in love from the start. So that kind of changed the trajectory of Passionflower. It made it easier to get to market, much more affordable, and gave us an audience that would be receptive to the concept. That was really, really awesome.
HEAVY TABLE: You mentioned that the places you liked in Denver were kind of exclusive. How do you try to be less exclusive?
LITIN: So, that’s a big thing. If you look at our menu, relative to a lot of other smoothie shops — you know, we don’t consider ourselves a smoothie shop; we consider ourselves functional beverage and super food shop, but since we’ve got smoothies on our menu, a lot of people call us a smoothie shop. If you go to a lot of the other smoothie shops around town, their prices are outrageous or they’ve got filler ingredients. So we just brought out this new menu, and everything came down from 50 cents to a dollar; we’re trying to make it more accessible to more people. And we want to do more education-based events that will allow people to come in, enjoy our beverages, and get a great information session, too. I’ve got bigger ideas —
We taste a new menu item, the Beauty-Fire “latte”
LITIN: Well, we just got a new steam wand that we’ve been waiting on for months, so we can finally do warm drinks. I’m still deciding if I want to call it a latte, because that usually means coffee, but there’s no coffee in this. It’s a really warming drink with cinnamon, oat milk, and Vital Proteins collagen, which is really good for nail health, hair health, and skin. It also has Cordyceps, which is really good for mental clarity and athletic performance. It’s a mushroom that gives you a clean, long-lasting energy boost without the crash. And then we’ve just got some really great flavorings to bring it together — some chocolate, rose.
We move to the second item, The Legend.
HEAVY TABLE: You said Passionflower isn’t “a smoothie shop,” but this looks like a smoothie.
LITIN: Yes! It’s definitely a smoothie, but we take it further than that. If you look at what’s in there, we’ve got ginger, blueberries, pepita, goji berries, banana, vanilla whey, chia seeds, almond butter, hemp milk — all of those perform a different function relative to nutrition. And this is basically a complete meal, with antioxidants and protein. If you go get a smoothie from Jamba Juice, it’s a sugar bomb. And that’s basically all you’re getting — a sugar rush. You feel good for a little bit, it tastes good, and then you crash.
HEAVY TABLE: So, tell me about this bowl.
LITIN: Yeah. This is the Concrete Jungle. We call it the Concrete Jungle because it’s gray! What makes it gray is the spirulina, a blue-green algae, that when mixed with blueberries, banana, avocado, coconut flesh, and hemp milk, creates a really cool texture, color, and taste. It’s almost savory with the spirulina.
Litin gets an elixir for us to try.
LITIN: So this is the Muscle and Joint Recovery. It’s been the most popular elixir that we’ve had.
HEAVY TABLE: What’s an elixir?
LITIN: So, yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got tonics and elixirs — tonics are more for general well-being, and elixirs are more for specific ailments, so, for example, this is for your muscles and joints.
HEAVY TABLE: Post-workout?
LITIN: Post-workout, yep. It’s made with Feral Beverage Co.’s Ginger Berry kombucha, and then we’ve got our own organic blend of turmeric and ginger that we use to create a medicinal dose of that. Great for muscle and joints, anti-inflammatory, anti-cramps.
HEAVY TABLE: Is your client base mostly from Alchemy, or do people come in from outside? How’s that going so far?
LITIN: Good. But it’s been interesting. We don’t have any signs outside.
HEAVY TABLE: Why not?
LITIN: Because other tenants in the building [that also sell food and drinks] have agreements that say we can’t have signage, basically.
HEAVY TABLE: So, you’re underground!
LITIN: We’re starting to coin ourselves as “Highland’s speakeasy.” A speakeasy for healthy drinks. So, yeah, we’re limited to how many people can see us. But we’ve viewed this [venture], from the start, as a testing ground. We’re experimenting with the menu, prices, with recipes. And we’re coming up with creative ways to engage more of the community. But so far, it’s definitely been enough to survive, thrive, and continue to grow.
Passionflower, 747 Cleveland Ave S, St. Paul, MN 55116; 612.444.1624. Mon-Fri 6 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.