Mustards & Punch will expand into the premises next door and completely change its style of business in the next few months if Scott Hessel’s ambitious plans work out. The travel agency next door, with whom relations have ranged from cool to ill-tempered, is considering an offer from Hessel to move elsewhere in the village and assign him the lease.
In true Hessel style, the offer was delivered in direct tones: “I told the travel agent I wanted to speak to her, but not over the phone. When she came down I asked what it would take to get her premises? I didn’t talk money, but she got the coded message that I want her lease.”
The travel agent is now thinking of a price, including what it would cost to relocate. Hessel says he’s thinking of a price, too, and if the deal is to go ahead, her price will have to be close to his.
Hessel’s plan is this: at ground-floor level he will knock through from his restaurant into the agency to make one open-plan area. A large bar area will be created in part of the former travel agency. The food style, on the ground floor, will be more “modern bistro”, looking for an average spend of £15 to £20 rather than the £24 a head he currently gets.
The present basement restaurant will move further upmarket, offering fine dining and fine wines, looking for a spend of £25 to £35 a head. “I’ll have two options: upstairs for those who want it relaxed and inexpensive; downstairs for those who want something better and are prepared to pay for it.” His hope is to try to turn round some of the seats twice on busy nights to get 90 covers from the 60 seats.
Central to the basement development will be the expansion of the kitchen and the completion of his new wine cellar. This lower expansion will come from the space currently beneath the travel agency, for which Hessel already has the lease.
In the 11 months since the restaurant opened, Hessel has grown ever more passionate about fine wine, collecting it himself and offering more on his menus. Today’s listing has 90 bottles on it. Work on the building of the wine cellar is already under way, with one wall racked off for bottles.
By chance, this new cellar has developed into a lucrative wine-selling aid. In November, customers started asking Hessel if he had anything interesting not on the wine list.
“I said to come downstairs to have a look and pick what they wanted out of the racks. They like it and they are spending a lot more than they would have done choosing from the list. It’s a bit of fun and adventure, picking wine in a dark cellar. It’s not what everyone wants to do, but if it moves some of the expensive stuff, I’m happy to have them look around.”
In the past couple of months Hessel has also begun to develop off-sales of wine, again using his new cellar. Customers see more that they want than they can drink on the night, so are buying to take home. Hessel is happy at this development. “I’m getting customers just buying one or two bottles or making up mixed cases. I put a straight 20% on anything that goes out this way.”
As from last month he is also acting as wine broker. “I’m always being sent bin-end lists and special offers for stuff I can’t use. But if I spot a bargain, I ring around those customers I know who like to buy fine wines and buy for them.”
The revenue from off-sales of wine is growing so well that in December it grossed £4,200. The average monthly gross takings from the restaurant is £16,000. Hessel thinks it might be turning over more than £10,000 a month by the end of next year.
The budgeted cost of the expansion plans for the restaurant and the wine cellar is £12,000, which will have to be borrowed from the bank. Provisional agreement has been given, but Hessel is quick to point out that he has proved himself a good risk by cutting back the start-up loan of £22,000 to its present size of £10,000 in 11 months. “The new money just takes us back to where we were at the start.”
The gourmet food and fine wine dinner he did for a select group of big-spending customers last month was a huge success. The customers provided nine bottles of fine old wines while Hessel provided nine courses of food to match the wine. It was a contra-deal that allowed Hessel to prepare a very special menu and to taste some rare old wines.
“Some of them were stunners; we’re going to do it again in the spring, only this time there’s going to be some real heavy stuff on the table. One of the customers is going to bring some Château Lafite ’45. That’s £300-a-bottle stuff. We’re going to make it a lot more special, black tie, candles, that sort of thing.”
What will change for the second dinner is that the free drinks won’t be matched by entirely free food. Hessel plans to charge food cost and something for staff cost. Yet while he lost money on the first evening and will make nothing from the second, the publicity and good will that were generated were immense. “All the regulars know about what happened. They have all been asking what it was like.”
December was a staffing milestone for Mustards & Punch. It was the first month since the restaurant opened that Hessel ended the month with the same staff that he started with. “That’s what comes of employing women instead of men.”
The restaurant is on target to break takings records this month. From £16,400 in November, sales look set to top £25,000 by the end of December.
A big chunk of that is coming from Christmas parties. While Hessel doesn’t normally do fixed price menus, he did a Christmas party lunch for groups of more than 12 at £12.95 and a similar menu at night for £17.95.
“You have got to put turkey on a Christmas party menu, but it doesn’t have to be roast with Paxo. We’ve done it in several different ways, mostly in a paupiette with a stuffing of chestnuts and tarragon.
“We made our own Christmas puddings at the beginning of the month. That was an experience. I’ve never made one in my life; I had to get a cookery book to learn how.
“It’s part of the set Christmas party menu, but it’s also been on the normal menu at £3.95. That was a good profit, it only costed out at 25p a portion to serve because the portions are small. Can’t give people large portions of a rich Christmas pudding, can you? Always got to think of your customers.”