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Roadhouses: The restaurant model of our time

How mall parking lots can help out restaurant chains.
Alex Mall. Image: Supplied

It wouldn’t be surprising if in the next few weeks mall owners and franchise restaurant chains set up their own pity party.

Both need the free and easy movement of people to generate a decent income, and both have been denied this as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The impact of the hard lockdown and the restriction on how many people could be in their premises at any time hurt them. This can be seen in Hyprop’s interim results for the six months to end December, with net operating profit dropping from R679.1 million to R408.2 million.

There was a similar story at Vukile Property Fund, which in its latest half-year to end September saw headline earnings slide to 27.99c a share from 82.99c a share.

It’s the same for restaurant chains Spur and Famous Brands. Spur’s total restaurant sales declined 29.5% to R2.9 billion in the six months to December 2020, while Famous Brands expects sales to drop 28.6% for the year to end-February.

Nowhere to go

The restaurant chains have made some efforts to sell takeaway meals, but this has done little to offset the losses from people coming in to sit down for a meal.

Mall owners are in the same boat, despite saying that people’s visits are shorter but they are spending more.

The unsaid thing about going to the mall and going to a restaurant is not that people need something buy – it’s that they need someplace to go.

In other words, people need to get out of the house and going to the mall gives them an excuse to do just that.

Take going to a family-friendly restaurant for instance. It may look like families are going out for some overpriced burgers just to avoid cleaning the dishes. What’s really happening is that the parents are taking a break while the children are let loose in a play area.

This family-friendly facility is more than a restaurant, it’s also playing the part of a daycare facility.

I have a cunning plan…

Sadly, the lockdown has ended this regular excursion. But has it?

Aside from discussing rent relief, maybe the malls and the restaurant chains should consider doing some business development along the lines of setting up ‘roadhouses’ in mall parking lots.

Hear me out.

Back in the day, roadhouses used to be a staple in the lives of many South Africans. It was not uncommon to have families pull up in a designated parking area and be served by a waiter on rollerskates.

Roadhouses have become something of a rarity in SA.

Though there are still well-known establishments – such the Wembley Roadhouse in Athlone, Cape Town and the Kota Joe chain in Gauteng – they are now few and far between.

At a time when Covid-19 restrictions are limiting how people are getting around, offering a restaurant service to people in their cars seems like a business model whose time has come – again.

Having a carpark roadhouse could work out out well for shopping centres, as it will increase the amount of time people hang around there. If they play their cards right, they could ‘white label’ the roadhouse format and offer it to all the restaurants in their mall.

It also offers a way for malls to get some kind of return on the dead assets that are parking lots.

The restaurants gain in that they win back some of the sit-down markets they lost as a result of the restrictions. They also benefit by reducing their dependence on meal delivery platforms. And they gain in the number of customers they are able to serve being limited only to the number of parking lots available.

It will certainly work out better for restaurant staff, who have had to endure shorter shifts and smaller tips.

And customers will most certainly gain as they will have an excuse to leave their homes. Even if it largely limits them to staying in their cars.

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COMMENTS   8

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Great idea Larry. Lovely to see someone think outside the box.

The roadhouse business-plan did well when the alternatives like fast-food restaurants and unlimited content on TV were unavailable. People visited the roadhouse because they enjoyed the experience and the outing. It was a major accomplishment to own a car back then. You wanted to spend your leisure time in your car, so you supported the roadhouse to sit in your new car.

Now people sit in the traffic all day. They order Uber Eats and watch sports or 7de laan in the living room. The children want to stay near the wi-fi to play their games. The constant risk of beggars and criminals keep them indoors.

So, we need a big enough attraction to get clients to visit the roadhouse. The success depends on more than the food or the service. The overheads will be low and the barrier to entry very accommodative. The problem is that the target market will have to take the taxi.

Interesting idea. The Doll House would likely have done a roaring trade had it not been shuttered 3 years ago.

Still miss their toasted chicken & mayo…

The appeal of big-box anchored malls is now on the wane.

They will be a drag for quite a long time to come.

Kota Joe is already doing this and growing at a great rate even before Covid-19. They have refreshed the hybrid roadhouse and eatery model, with one of South Africa’s favourite foods the Kota.

Has there been incidents of restaurants in malls reaching covid seating capacity and as a results ques forming outside its doors ?

maybe include a big screen and make a road house drive in so ster kinikor can be helped.

But somehow I cannot see eating in a car being more comfortable than eating in a home or restaurant.

Maybe for teenagers on a date

Great Idea. Shows my age I guess.

At the same time what about using the same venue as a drive-in cinema at night?

No more bench seats in cars though??? Maybe a business opportunity?

Any other great ideas like this?

Stimulate more outdoor activities for families, rather than malls eg if the mall is close to a park offer picnics?

Pity that our SA family would rather go and get fast food than go for a hike or a run or play outdoors!

End of comments.

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