Mark Jakubowski first opened Old Man Rafferty’s in New Brunswick in 1983. He opened the second location, in Hillsborough, in 1992. When coronavirus hit and he was forced to temporarily close, Jakubowski not only scrambled to get funding to help his restaurants and out-of-work staff, he even took out equity on his home to help pay for health insurance for 18 full-time employees.
Now, he has a new addition, starting June 4: Car Hop Dining, a version of socially distanced dining and a show (in the restaurant parking lot, with a flatbed trailer for a stage). A limited number of cars will be reserved for every other spot, with the full menu—including drinks—available for a kind of close-by “takeout” dining. Considering summer’s just about here and we’re all itching to get out, it seems like Jakubowski’s timing is spot on. We caught up with him to talk about the car hop concept and what we can expect as the concept rolls on, so to speak.
Table Hopping: You’re an industry veteran. When this hit, did any part of you feel like, “Okay, I’m done”?
Mark Jakubowski: No. But a lot of people are starting to give up. But there’s always a way to reinvent yourself. Some are reinventing and some are throwing their hands up, saying “I can’t do this.” But you have to. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. This is just a new opportunity. This is a new age. Everything goes through its stages. This is one of them.
TH: How did Old Man Rafferty’s first react to the shutdown?
MJ: It was a shock to everybody. After Governor Murphy pulled the trigger, we shut down immediately of course and gathered our thoughts. Eventually we opened for takeout for a few days, but this was in the beginning, when nobody knew much about the coronavirus. Our staff was very scared. I looked at everybody and thought “This doesn’t make sense.” Putting everybody out there. So we shut the place down and figured it out.
TH: What do you mean when you say “figured it out?”
MJ: As soon as possible, I applied for the PPP Loan from the Cares Act. I was one of the lucky ones, first-in-the-door kind of situation. I secured funds on April 30 and we fired back up on May 1, reopening both locations. And we’re more educated now, we know a lot more.
TH: What does that look like, logistically?
MJ: Oh, it’s the face masks, washing hands, staying away from each other. It’s really about being responsible and getting it done. We’re doing takeout and delivery, and we’re doing pretty good, but that’s still only 30 percent of our usual sales. If it wasn’t for the loan, we’d be in trouble.
TH: Where did the idea for a “Car Hop Dining” idea come from?
MJ: The idea really came from reading articles online, that a drive-in movie theater was opening again in South Jersey. We can’t do a movie theater, obviously, but I thought “How can I put a twist on it? Do a parking lot show!” We have some entertainers lined up, a couple solo guys, and we have a trailer which is going to be a stage. The first act, Richie Santa, he does great Elvis material. White jumpsuit and everything. He’ll roam the parking lot, too, singing.
TH: Speaking of the parking lot, how will you manage social distancing there?
MJ: We’re doing every other space, 45 cars, safely. You call the restaurant and make your reservation. All the space are numbered. We’ll have wait staff with orange vests acting as parking lot attendants. You’ll come in, go to your assigned space, give your drink order. The food will have already been started to be prepared, so you can just enjoy your drink and the show will start. You can have your windows down. We’ll have car hop service trays you can clip onto your windows. There will be no contact, no reaching into the car.
TH: Have you gotten a lot of interest?
MJ: We started with one show at 5:30, but we’re booked solid on that, so we added a 7:30 show. Next week it’s gonna be Frank Sinatra. Well, a local guy in Hillsborough who does a great Frank. And we’ll have Vinny Brand from the Stress Factory in New Brunswick up there. We want to keep this thing going.
TH: Do you think you’ll do them once a week or increase the number of shows per week?
MJ: I’d love to end up doing four or five days a week. People are dying to get out.
TH: What about the idea of serving alcohol to people in their cars?
MJ: The first executive order allowed takeout wine and beer by the bottle, in sealed containers. Another order allows us to sell mixed drinks as long as they’re sealed. We’re doing takeout service, takeout food to your car. Where you want to consume it is none of our business. We just so happen to be putting on a show… We’re going to make sure it’s done responsibly.