This year will be the Mulberry Tree's third Christmas and proprietor Karen Williams says she has learned a lot from the previous two years. Head chef Alan Irwin prepared the Christmas menus in April and they have been on the restaurant's website since June.
"I e‑mailed the menus to everyone on our mailing list in the first week of September and we took a lot of early bookings as a result of this," Williams says. "The two Friday nights before Christmas have been booked since early February with repeat party bookings from last year."
She adds that Christmas bookings are already very good and higher than this time last year, with Christmas Day and most Friday and Saturday nights fully booked.
Mentor Roy Ackerman praises Williams's organisational skills. "Karen is well ahead of the game and it's great that she has been in touch with all of her customers about the Christmas offer," he says. "It's fantastic to see that bookings are up on last year considering the economic climate and she now needs to push Wednesday and Thursday nights."
Williams has upped the Christmas party menu slightly from last year to £25 for three courses and coffee. She has also offered it at a discounted price in January and has already taken a number of large party bookings for the month. During service, head chef Irwin will go out to each table and carve the turkey, allowing him to chat to the customers, many of whom are regular guests. "This is a great idea and it will make the diners' experience a lot more personal and special," Ackerman says.
Another major change Williams has implemented this Christmas is a 10% service charge added to group bookings of more than 10. She has confirmed every booking by e‑mail, giving customers the Mulberry Tree's terms and conditions, which include a full charge if bookings are changed less than seven days prior to the reservation. "Last year we had lots of parties that turned up with greatly reduced numbers and didn't let us know, and we lost revenue when we could have resold the tables," she recalls.
The Mulberry Tree will be open throughout the Christmas and New Year period, except for Boxing and New Year's Day. Williams has worked out most of the staff rotas with the restaurant's "permanent part-time staff" who will be backed up by other part-time staff from the local area. The restaurant will close from 4 to 15 January, a traditionally quiet time, to allow all members of staff a well-deserved holiday.
Ackerman agrees with Williams's decision to shut the restaurant for those 10 days. "Karen really knows her market and it makes sense to close the restaurant during this dead period," he says.
On New Year's Eve the Mulberry Tree will be open for dinner only and will not offer any music or entertainment. "The first year we didn't open but I asked diners what they would like and the consensus was just dinner," Williams explains. "We are not really big enough to have live entertainment, as we would have to charge so much to each customer to cover the overhead. We were full last year and already have bookings for this New Year's Eve."
"Karen is totally right not to put on live entertainment," Ackerman says. "Live music in a small restaurant doesn't work. It causes embarrassment among diners and is really best left to larger venues and bars."
Things are going incredibly well at the Mulberry Tree in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, and the restaurant saw record takings last month. In October, business was up a whopping 46% on the same period last year.
Thanks to the rise in business and the restaurant being busier, proprietor Karen Williams has appointed another full-time member of staff to help out head chef Alan Irwin in the kitchen. The new commis chef has increased the brigade to four full-time and Williams has also added part-time waiting staff to cope with the increase in trade.
"This has enabled the existing chefs to move on to different sections, broadening their knowledge and training," Williams explains.
The Mulberry Tree is located in three acres of countryside, which the restaurant is developing into a kitchen garden, orchard and smallholding, having introduced six pigs in the spring. The restaurant's first pigs went to slaughter earlier this month and are now featured on the menu.
"It has been very well received by the customers who have all noticed the difference in flavour," Williams says.
She adds that there are plans to divide the pigs' large field into smaller areas for several groups of pigs.