The Mulberry Tree is a modern British 65-seat restaurant and bar set within three acres in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent. Proprietor Karen Williams acquired the derelict former pub site in 2005, but her plans to turn it into a food-led operation were met with considerable opposition from local residents, who campaigned for it to be wet-led. It took her a year to be granted planning permission to convert the property into a restaurant, and it finally opened in May 2007.
"After the local residents campaigned against us, we initially tried to run the Mulberry Tree as a pub, offering sandwiches and snacks," Williams says. "But it didn't work, and we quickly realised that we had to run it as a restaurant and bar."
Despite the initial local reluctance, the Mulberry Tree has established itself as a favourite among residents, but it wasn't easy to get there, and Williams admits that a lot of mistakes were made. "It was difficult for both me and my head chef, Alan Irwin, to get to grips with what the locals wanted, and we had to change our offer a few times before we got it right," she says.
With two decades of hospitality experience, this is Williams's fourth venture, after having previously run a wine bar in Weybridge, Surrey, a food-led pub in Essex and a small hotel in Wiltshire. But despite her experience she feels she still has a lot to learn.
"To have a successful business you have to constantly look at your product, change with the market and ensure you are providing exactly what the location and customer demand," she says. "Our aim is to be one of the top dining establishments in Kent, and to have input from industry experts would help this learning curve and hopefully minimise any future faux pas."
Williams oversees the front-of-house operations with daughter Lauren, mum Gill and six part-time staff, while Irwin heads up the three-strong kitchen. The restaurant currently breaks even at around £6,000 per week, of which 70% is food sales.
Irwin, who joined the restaurant from the former Michelin-starred Chapter One in Bromley, serves a modern British menu focused on seasonal ingredients sourced from local organic suppliers and has been awarded two AA rosettes. The restaurant is a member of the Produced in Kent association, which champions and develops the Kentish identity of local products.
The restaurant has also started to branch out into the events market, and there are plans to develop a kitchen garden and grow produce for use in the restaurant.
Mentor Roy Ackerman's initial impressions are positive, and he commends the menu. However, he warns that the location means it won't be easy to build up a profile, which will prove a key driver for business.
"The restaurant also needs to ensure it has a balance and caters for the local market and understands what people in the area are prepared to pay," he advises, adding, "but the Mulberry Tree has already achieved a lot. Karen's enthusiasm and determination to make this restaurant a success are highly commendable."
The Mulberry Tree restaurant has already dabbled in the events market, with head chef Alan Irwin having catered for a private dinner party at a local couple's house last year.
Proprietor Karen Williams sees it as a good way of boosting profits and has started to market the restaurant as a wedding venue. She has four weddings booked for 2009 so far. The first, for 67 people with exclusive use of the restaurant, took place on the first weekend in February.
"The couple were getting married for the second time and wanted the wedding to have more of a dinner-party theme instead of a traditional wedding reception, which is why they chose us as their venue," Williams explains.
Irwin served a six-course menu, and Williams says: "The wedding went really well, and after we had such bad weather at the beginning of the week, the party really boosted our week very nicely,"
The property has just been named as one of the three finalists for the Produced in Kent Restaurant of the Year award.