March Update: The Mulberry Tree

30 March 2009
March Update: The Mulberry Tree

This new-build property is a freehold, and owner Karen Williams has no problems with planning permission or other building-related issues. However, things haven't always been easy and it was a struggle for her to get the restaurant to where it is at now.

The previous owner had demolished the derelict former pub site, wanting to convert it into a block of apartments, but was refused planning permission after local residents campaigned against the plans. After Williams took over the site, wanting to turn it into a food-led operation, her plans were met with similar opposition from local residents, who campaigned for it to remain a wet-led local.

It took her two attempts and a year to be granted planning permission from the local council to convert the property into a restaurant, with the Mulberry Tree finally opening in May 2007.

"That was one minefield, only to be exchanged for another in the building project," she says.

"For someone with no building or planning experience, it proved to be really difficult and a very steep learning curve. I naïvely put my faith and budget in the hands of professionals and there was a considerable overrun on budget, which, as the freeholder, I was fortunate enough to be able to finance.

"If I was venturing into the same exercise now I would probably struggle to gain financing, owing to the banks' current reticence to lend."

Mentor Roy Ackerman says: "Karen obviously experienced tremendous difficulty initially getting planning permission and had to endure two planning applications as well as a local campaign against her operating a restaurant on the premises. But having successfully won both the planners and the locals over, it has been much easier for her to establish her restaurant.

"Her main advantage is that she has a freehold and in that respect is not subject to rent increases or landlord issues, and, having finance in place, is in a good position to benefit from favourable interest rates. Many restaurants find themselves in the position of being under-capitalised when opening up and constantly fighting against the tide in order make up this deficit. Inevitably, as in Karen's case, overspends occur and are very difficult to control. Therefore, constant monitoring and sensible budgets need to be established and adhered to.

"Karen put her faith in the hands of professionals regarding the building and planning and unfortunately found some to be wanting. This emphasises that whenever possible you should get personal recommendations from those you have faith in, or from the various hospitality professional bodies, before you embark on a project.

"It is typical of the vagaries of our business that a power cut, which Karen suffered recently, happened on a day when she had 50 covers booked in.

"All of the above illustrates her determination to overcome problems that are thrown at her and rise to the challenge of what is an extremely competitive market."

March Update

The Mulberry Tree was last month named Produced in Kent Restaurant of the Year, beating finalists Richard Phillips at Chapel Down and Michael Caines at Abode Canterbury.

Proprietor Karen Williams says winning the award was amazing.

"In the morning I saw that I was on the cover of Caterer and then in the evening we won the Restaurant of the Year award so it really was a wonderful day," she says.

However, what goes up must come down and sending the high spirits of winning the award into oblivion, the Mulberry Tree experienced an eight-hour power cut a week later, which forced it to close and lose out on a busy Friday night service.

"We lost nearly 50 covers of business, which was devastating, especially as just the week before we had coverage in the local press on winning our award," Williams says.

"We had so many calls from locals who wanted to be fed and we couldn't accommodate them."

She adds that the Mulberry Tree will now look into buying a small generator to power the kitchen, in case of future power cuts.

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