All eyes are on the Marquis, a restaurant with rooms in Alkham near Dover, Kent, after it was awarded a rising star by Michelin at the start of this year. Manager Ben Walton gives Neil Gerrard the lowdown on the business
The Marquis sits in the village of Alkham in an area of outstanding natural beauty sandwiched between the A2 and the M20, just five miles from the port of Dover. It has been trading since October 2008 after the site was transformed from a down-on-its-luck pub into an upmarket 60-seat restaurant with rooms. The building is 200 years old this year.
Affluent locals living up to 30 miles away. Although the accommodation side of the business has been more of a success with locals who live close by than Walton and his team expected. "We didn't realise there would be such a big market in people living down to five miles or so away who would actually want to stay. In this area, there is not a huge amount of restaurants at this level, so this is a sort of bonus market," he says.
Another target audience is people travelling to and from the continent, as well as northern Europeans who are travelling to Kent - including a relatively large number of Belgians, some French and some Swiss, all attracted by the relative weakness of the pound.
How does it stand out
Walton puts a big emphasis on the food. "It's what drives the high-value business - the packages, the tasting menus and the Champagne on arrival," he says. "We are doing fine dining in a fine-dining restaurant with the service to match, which I think is what a lot of rural restaurants miss. They tick a couple of boxes but maybe not all of them."
But there are other factors, too, when it comes to getting customers to spend the money that allows you to run a restaurant like the one at the Marquis - attractive surroundings, good service and an interesting wine list all play their part, according to Walton.
"Every single element has to be right," he says. "Head chef Charles Lakin's menus use local ingredients very intelligently but there is no spiel. We don't make too much of a fuss about the fact that he is using local produce."
How does it market itself
The main way the Marquis markets itself is via its mailing list of 4,000 to 5,000 people. In the first year, Walton pushed hard to get as many people going to the venue for the first time on to that mailing list. He uses the list to offer people who already know the business something interesting, like packages with accommodation, or a jazz night just for regulars.
As the revenue for the business grows it means it can add extra layers to the service and to the food, Walton says. The Marquis is now going down the route of having more tableside service and has just invested in a cheese trolley, in a bid to differentiate itself with other restaurants outside of London.
It is also starting to find leisure functions very successful. "One of the marketing drives we are doing is trying to get people's birth dates, so that every month we can send an eâ'mail or ring people up and offer them incentives, such as a free glass of Champagne, to book a table for their birthday," says Walton.
He has also held a competition where the Marquis offered people who supplied their birth date the chance to win a complementary night in the private dining room with a meal for 10 - the sale value of which was about £750. The competition ran for about two months and cost about £100 to do before Champagne. But Walton got 1,100 people's birthdays and the number of people signing up to the dining club went up 400%.
Di Smith, on Sladden Farm near Dover. "She is an old lady who lives on this little farm and absolutely loves and lives for the pedigree cattle that she rears. They all graze on wild flowers on heathland on the white cliffs. And the beef tastes unbelievable," Walton says.
SPOTLIGHT ON DESIGN
Before the Marquis reopened as a restaurant with rooms, the Marquis Hotel Group spent £1.5m on a complete refurbishment.
Design specialist Guy Hollaway Architects was called in to convert the listed building and create a venue which reflected the quality of the food.
Although the designer significantly updated the building to give it a more modern feel, it also drew on its past to create a "lived-in" feel that avoided the sterile atmosphere that some modern hotels can suffer from.
The result was five rooms with a distinctive identity - with a different colour and fabric for each. One, the John Collard room (pictured above), takes its name from the architect who built the property.
The Marquis receives many comments about the quality of the restaurant and accommodation, and the way it has been designed.
FACTS AND STATS
Owner The Marquis Hotel Group
Number of months open 25
Double rooms 8
Average number of covers 350 per week
Average spend per head £80