James Lowe wasn't tempted by the possibility of untold riches this Christmas. He locked the door at Villa Italia from Christmas Eve to the day after Boxing Day and, for the first time, spent the festive season with his wife Joanne and baby daughter Emily.
As it turned out, he could afford to. Takings at his 70-seat restaurant in December totted up to £31,258, a rise of £7,258 on 1999. It's a fillip that's probably thanks mainly to the fact that he has spent the past 19 months developing customer loyalty. This meant the team served 2,066 covers over the Christmas season against 1,651 the previous year.
Partly on a hunch
So, has this success whetted his appetite to stay open next year in the likelihood that he could rake in even more revenue? It seems not. Lowe's decision to shut for three days was based partly on a hunch there wouldn't be much business around anyway. "My family is very important," he says, "and, to be honest, it would not have been that busy."
The three-week run-up to Christmas was a different matter, however. Whereas ordinary lunchtimes bring in 20-25 customers, the daily round of office parties as the season gathered momentum filled almost all the 70 seats. His best customers were workers from GNER and Railtrack (the restaurant is only five minutes from the station) and the Norwich Union branch around the corner.
Villa Italia's popularity may have been down to the competitive pricing - at lunch, two courses were £8.95 and dinner was £14.95 for three courses. But it may also have been that the menu allowed customers to escape turkey, sprouts and mince pies. Instead, there were traditional Italian Christmas dishes such as roast pork, and panettone.
But while Christmas itself gave the team time to catch their breath, there was no way that Lowe was going to miss out on New Year's Eve's opportunities. On the basis that the Mafia theme night in September doubled the usual £400- to £500-a-night takings, Lowe reckoned that it would be worth running the same theme again.
He was right. A team of four staff served the £34.95 five-course set menu to 75 guests, contributing £2,621 to Villa Italia's coffers. And because the menu was kept simple, Lowe reckons that gross profit on the food is higher than usual, at about 76%. The guests kicked off with Champagne and worked their way through bruschetta with king olives, an antipasta course of melon, peppers and mushrooms followed by a selection of Italian cured meats, and a main course of pasta with meatballs. The dinner was finished with cheese, grapes, coffee and grappa.
Despite the evening's success, Lowe has learnt a few lessons. The set menu was easy to prepare and cost-effective, but needless to say it wasn't foolproof when it came to vegetarians or personal taste. Next time Lowe does a theme night, therefore, he reckons that he will offer a choice of six starters and six mains.
Similarly, the Christmas season has given Lowe a chance to review which marketing tools work best. Altogether, he spent £250 on general ads in local newspapers, flyers and mail shots, but they didn't bring much response. What did get results was the Internet, which garnered at least 10% of the New Year's Eve bookings.
All in all, Christmas business has given Lowe enough confidence to make some bold New Year resolutions. First and foremost, he wants to open a deli if he can seal a deal on adjoining premises. But he's also determined to build on what he has achieved in the restaurant.
"We've got a good following and people are talking about us," he says. "I want to further this and, as always, increase the lunch trade."
Next visit: 25 January