With business tanking from the pandemic at his two diner-style restaurants in Chester County, Mohamed “Mo” Maaty looked at the big picture. He had large, unusable dining rooms and large, little-used kitchens turning out takeout food.
He also had large parking lots.
Since everybody drives to Happy Day’s Family Bistro, in Thorndale, and to Bistro 24, in Exton, why not serve customers in their cars in the parking lot?
Borrowing a classic motif from the Sonic Drive-In chain and Philadelphia-area independents like Weber’s, Speck’s, Stewart’s, and Castle Harbor, Maaty reopened his restaurants two weeks ago as drive-ins, hiring back waitresses — whose uniforms are satin poodle skirts ordered from Amazon — and got to work.
Maaty considers the theme a last-ditch idea. Remaining closed or operating with conventional takeout and delivery "could not continue,” he said. “We were literally facing bankruptcy.”
Pre-pandemic, he said, takeout business accounted for only 5% to 10% of sales. “I had been emphasizing that we need to increase that takeout business, but after the pandemic epidemic, I realized how important it was,” he said.
Coming into the warm weather, outdoor service — maintaining social distancing and using disposable cutlery and cups — seemed logical. The carhop vibe squared with his restaurants’ retro-'50s motif.
“We service them, give them a fresh, hot meal, and do everything [we used to], except they’ll be sitting in their seat in their own car,” said Maaty. “The problem with takeout is that you get cold food by the time it gets home. Here, in the parking lot, we can modify food and offer refills. Complete service.”
The restaurants’ 24-hour service has been trimmed to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Maaty said he trained his staff in proper hygiene. It’s in his background.
He arrived in the United States from Egypt as a 16-year-old in 1980 and started in the business as a dishwasher while studying pharmacy science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
He practiced for about 10 years before investing $100,000 from his savings in the Exton Diner, on Route 100 across from the Uwclan Township building. He later renovated it and renamed it Bistro 24.
In 2004, he opened Happy Day’s (complete with apostrophe) in a former Boston Market on Route 30 between Downingtown and Coatesville.
Maaty said he was thinking of adding a large screen in the parking lot for a dinner-and-a-movie option.
A sign outside proclaims “This restaurant is owned & supervised by a health minded professional pharmacist.”
Business is catching on, he said. Friday afternoon, a blue Chevrolet Colorado pickup pulled in off the busy road and parked. Waitresses Kim Karolczak and Angeline Vega sprang into action, dropping off clip-on trays and disposable menus. Customers are asked to order by cellphone.
Driver Audrey Lefever, a teacher from York, with Penn State student Samantha Beck riding shotgun and 7-year-old Frank Karolczak 4th in the backseat, ordered fish and chips, a grilled chicken Caesar wrap, and grilled cheese sandwich. (Frank Karolczak and Kim Karolczak, it turns out, are distant cousins.)
Lefever explained that she had heard about Happy Day’s shift to drive-in service on Facebook, and decided to head over. “I love this kind of thing,” she said. The waitresses, wearing masks, checked back on the customers, keeping encounters at the car windows brief.
Wearing the new uniform, “makes the day that much more fun,” Kim Karolczak said.
“It’s much more comfortable,” said Vega, who previously wore sweatpants in the dining room.
Maaty thinks he’s on to something, given the coronavirus’ likely long-term disruption of the restaurant business. “For at least the next couple of years, this is going to be the trend,” he said.