For the Mulberry Tree in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, 2009 was a fantastically successful year, despite the difficult trading conditions brought on by the recession. Year-on-year, the restaurant increased its turnover by more than 50% - "a phenomenal achievement considering its remote rural location", according to mentor Roy Ackerman.
The restaurant managed to put itself on the national culinary map after it gained a very positive review in one of the national newspapers, was included in Eat Out's top 100 list of UK restaurants and picked up a number of awards during the year. These included the Produced in Kent's Restaurant of the Year accolade and The Good Food Guide‘s award for best restaurant in the South-east.
"It has been a hard year for the Mulberry Tree, as it has been for most operators, but the awards it won opened it up to a whole new audience and really put the restaurant on the map," Ackerman says. "The publicity it gained in the local media really helped to boost business."
Proprietor Karen Williams adds that among the many memorable highlights of the year taking part in Caterer‘s Best for Business series was one high point as it presented the business with lots of opportunities. "And we made the most of every one," she says.
Williams lists the free one-year membership with Beacon as "a huge perk" and adds that the year's HR support provided by First Choice was a great help. "For a small business like ours to have that assistance, was invaluable," she explains. "Small businesses tend to fall down on things like HR as it is so time-consuming, yet hiring professionals is a huge expense. I couldn't recommend this part highly enough."
During the year, Williams ventured into the events catering market and hosted a number of weddings at the Mulberry Tree. She also launched a series of regular events including gourmet and jazz evenings, which quickly became popular with regular diners.
Thanks to the rise in business and the restaurant getting busier throughout the year, Williams appointed another full-time member of staff to help out head chef Alan Irwin in the kitchen. The new commis chef increased the brigade to four full-time chefs.
The Mulberry Tree is located in three acres of countryside, which the restaurant is developing into a kitchen garden, orchard and small holding. In the spring, Williams and Irwin introduced six pigs, which went to slaughter in the autumn and were featured on the menu in November.
Ackerman praises the Mulberry Tree team's effort on developing the land. "Williams and Irwin have constantly grown the land throughout the year and Irwin really is a very talented chef in that sense," he says. "The two of them make a fantastic team as they are both very determined."
Looking to the future, Williams reveals further plans for the land: "We will look at utilising more of the three acres and plan to introduce turkeys for next Christmas, more pigs and fruit trees and excavate the natural pond for ducks."
But that's not where it ends and Williams adds that there are additional plans to extend the property, which will be paid for by the business out of cash-flow. "We are discussing the idea of extending our private dining room, which currently holds 12 people, as we have so many requests for a private room accommodating larger numbers," she reveals. "Any extension would possibly also include opening up the kitchen to feature a viewing area or chef's table."
Ackerman says the extension would be an excellent idea: "I'm sure there will be many more changes over the years to come as Karen finally settles into the established restaurant the Mulberry Tree deserves to be."
Being located in a remote rural location in Kent, the Mulberry Tree in Boughton Monchelsea suffered badly in this winter's severe weather and heavy snowfall.
"On the Friday before Christmas - which is usually our busiest day - we went from having 150 covers booked to serving just five meals," recalls proprietor Karen Williams. "Cancellations continued right up until Christmas Eve, which was just devastating."
Despite the many cancellations, however, December was still a record month for the Mulberry Tree. "Because we took deposits from the larger party bookings many have rebooked for January and February, so we haven't lost out completely," Williams explains.
Williams has arranged for two front-of-house staff to go on Bibendum's wine training course, which she and daughter Lauren enrolled in last year.
"This gave us so much more knowledge and confidence and will enable staff to talk to customers and recommend unusual wines - something that is particularly useful as we sell most of our wines by the glass," she says.
Finally, the Mulberry Tree has just been named one of three finalists in the restaurant of the year category in the Taste of Kent awards. "This is the title that we currently hold, so will be defending our crown!" Williams says.
You can view a video interview with Mulberry Tree proprietor Karen Williams on Cool Cucumber TV, a new online food magazine created by Roy Ackerman. To view the video go to www.coolcucumber.tv and click on programme seven.