It goes without saying that restaurants have been some of the hardest hit businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, within the sector, what with the alcohol ban and the curfew, pubs and bars have really had the short end of the stick. Which makes family-owned Molly Malones pub in Fourways a bit of a success story.

Early in the lockdown, Molly Malones – which employs 50 people – was reinvented as a Roadhouse Diner. Diners can park in demarcated parking bays in the parking lot and waiters come to the car to take and drop off orders. There’s entertainment as well, with a big screen for movies and pub quiz evenings.

“We are a family-owned and run pub/restaurant with no other source of income,” says Jenny-Lee Bot, owner of Molly Malones. “COVID-19 was bringing us to our knees, with bills left unpaid with no hope of it ending. We needed to think outside the box and restructure our business and livelihood around COVID-19 and keeping people safe whilst keeping staff employed. Thus came the idea of people staying in their cars and ordering food roadhouse style with a big screen to entertain.”

Usually the restaurant’s food sales represented a much smaller percentage of their turnover, with high liquor sales that one would expect from a pub. “We had to change that around and focus more on food,” says Jenny-Lee. As she is immune-compromised, Jenny-Lee had to stay at home and leave her daughter to implement the changes to the restaurant. “Logistically it was an expensive and stressful operation as we had to invest in a screen, figure out how audio-transmission would work, re-brand everything, and generate a roadhouse menu – all while implementing strict COVID-19 safety measures.”

The pub had to invest in new packaging, sourced from Cape Town, and roadhouse trays which clip onto car windows – they also bought enough trays so that each customer in the car was able to eat off their laps. New systems were put in place including slips stating roadhouse or dine-in, which lets the kitchen and the bar know to use packaging or plates. The menu was adapted to include food that was easy to eat in a car, with items like loaded fries, steak rolls and burgers. “We are now selling milkshakes instead of draughts,” says Jenny-Lee. “Barmen had to learn a whole new skillset! The kitchen had to learn to make chocolate chip cookies, kids meals, popcorn, and waiters were all retrained on how to serve a customer in their car.”

The team marketed the restaurant mostly through Facebook and word of mouth. They created special events like Girls Night Out, Quiz in your Car and cartoons on screen for the kids. Jenny-Lee says that financially speaking, their roadhouse has definitely helped in keeping staff employed and paying a portion of the rent. “In these stressful times, we are blessed and grateful for that,” she says.

She’s also thrilled that customers have been very supportive, partly crediting the feel-good vibes that a roadhouse brings. “The old school roadhouse drive-in has a nostalgic feel that brings back so many happy memories for the older generation. To be able to share this with the youth has also made family time more meaningful. Kids arriving in their pjs and lying in the boot of the car where mommy made a cosy bed, eating a candy apple like back in the day has brought smiles and fond memories to everyone.”

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing though – towards the beginning of the lockdown, the restaurant was raided by no less than seven police vehicles, demanding a total shutdown or face arrest. The restaurant was accused of promoting a social gathering, even though all customers were adhering to social distancing within their cars. Luckily, though, they were able to open again the next day.

When asked for her advice for other restaurants, Jenny-Lee says “Try to remember that life will go back to normal.  We are facing one of the most trying times ever known in the history of mankind so be kind to yourself. It’s ok to feel extremely stressed out. Keep your faith strong as our God is greater than any virus and he has a plan.”

“South Africans have a tremendous ability to be resourceful, kind and generous,” says Jenny-Lee. “We are a pretty amazing nation. We will get through this.”

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