On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Ricky Mollohan moved about the Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe dining room, hauling a box of wine.
A table was repurposed as a makeshift office space, with papers strewn about, along with a thermos and other odds and ends. Around him, his staff prepared for the upcoming dinner service.
A worker asked Mollohan to proofread a menu. In seconds, Mollohan zeroed in on an immediate change: highlighting “country ham” in the description for the collards.
“Anytime we got bacon or ham or something you want to make sure you say it,” he said.
The restaurant has shut down lunches for the time being, a decision that bothers him, even though it's necessary.
“Many have lunched with us for 20 years, and … you feel like you owe it to these people that have supported you,” Mollohan said. “At the same time, they’ve also experienced it in a way that we couldn't possibly pull off right now with the limited staff we have that’s qualified to do the job.”
Like Columbia’s restaurant industry and the nation’s at large, he’s dealing with a withering staff. While he no longer serves lunch, other restaurants around the city have nixed service on certain days entirely in an effort to give workers rest.
Mollohan has been perhaps Columbia’s most vocal critic in the industry of the state government's reopening plan and a perceived lackluster support of independent restaurants. His frequent social media posts — on personal pages and on his restaurant’s page — often zero in on this and can, at times, encompass other organizations, like the state’s top restaurant association or politicians.
"To say that it's been slow this week would be beyond polite. No, we haven't exactly been knocking on doors or e-blasting like we clearly need to, but there are plenty of reasons as to why," a January Facebook post on Mr. Friendly's Facebook page reads. "So while we are trying to maintain ... the fact is that not in twenty five years has it ever been like this. It makes me nauseous seeing us so empty. While several of us continue to stay home and play it safe after potential close-contact, only to see other establishments be irresponsible and unsafe as they profit from it."
In an interview with Free Times, Mollohan detailed how his lone restaurant is doing with a low seating capacity, explained his discontent with the state’s approach, and what it was like to close his other restaurant, Solstice Kitchen, after 14 years. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Free Times: Do you feel like your business is at a sustainable level?
Ricky Mollohan: When you have something that worked, I think it's silly to turn away from it. I think I do see us wanting to get where we are going to be open for lunch at some point again.
After this long in the business, you know what you're capable of, what the people that work for you are capable of and who you need to be able to rely on.
If this had happened when I was 25 years old, I would have Superman-ed this thing and been here day and night, pitching in, whatever had to be done. But, you know, we're an older staff now, with kids and everybody's dealing with unique things out of work. And that's something that a lot of people, I think, don't realize about the restaurant business is that it's not the same as it was showing up for work. It's not the same leaving your house anymore to go to work.
What do you mean by that?
I think a lot of people in this business, especially when you are used to working a lot of nights, you either had a spouse or you had some family that was available.
You might need to go to work, but you don't have to go to work. You can keep things at work tame enough to where you don't have to be there and I think that's the reality of it.
What COVID stripped a lot of restaurants and a lot of businesses of is that the people that a lot of places had to sacrifice were some of their best people. They were some of their highest paid people. They weren't the best and the highest paid just because they were standing around, they were because they've been working there for a while and so it's not as easy.
It's as much about maintaining your sanity and making yourself available for your family more than ever.
How do you feel like you’ve personally handled the moral dilemma of operating amid COVID-19? How is it having to make those decisions?
I think, pre-COVID, I was very confident in 99 percent of the decisions I made. I ultimately trusted my gut and that, even if it was in the moment, or if I thought about it for two days, I'd say I did things that I felt morally made sense.
COVID, there's just nothing to compare it to. So I think it's impossible to feel like, "This is it. This is the way to go." You know, I'm sort of probably in my head. I feel like second-guessing myself, you know, feeling like I'm making a decision and then coming back 48 hours later and going, "Wait, wait, wait." I mean, there wasn't a training course for this.
I wanted to err on the side of caution and I feel like we have, but I also know the decisions cost me a restaurant, you know? I still, when I’m here, I have moments. I'll stop and go still, think to myself, "What was going on at Solstice?"
I think it has made me more cautious here and wanting to feel good about the decisions that I made.
What was it like making the decision to close Solstice?
Horrible. It had been seven months of trying to figure out how to reopen and trying to come to terms with a future agreement for Solstice. And we got really, really close. I mean, it was the day before we were supposed to open, I got the call, that ultimately was like, "OK, well, if that's the decision, I can’t go forward."
So a lot of it had to do with a cost thing, but it was also just a human thing of, "How can (you open) with how hard we had to push people, and push yourself, and can you find the people?’"
How do you feel about the state’s reopening of the restaurant industry?
The first thing I am is I’m grateful that this restaurant is still here. I still have a job. At the same time, I think enough time has passed, where I'm letting go of some of those frustrations that I felt. I disagreed on many levels with how the state handled things, just knowing the people that I know in this city, in this state, there's so much ability to do things in state rather than waiting on, you know, the federal hammer to come down to do things.
I think it was a little too much attention spent trying to keep people thinking about dining out in a positive light, rather than saying, "This is pretty serious." Let's make sure that this state is doing what it can to help people. There's a point where (it left) everything up to people having these handshake deals and, you know, every man for himself doesn't work.
You've been pretty public on the Mr. Friendly’s Facebook account about the experience of operating under COVID-19 conditions. Why did you decide to take that tact?
I think after 20 years, people know who's typing the message. They're more than just our Facebook friends. They were our friends before, not vice versa. Then I just don't want to run away from it. I think being honest now is the best way.
Do you feel like people have been engaged with your posting?
There’s not too many people in the business, certainly around the town, that I haven't known for many, many years. I think there's some frustration in other people feeling that other people are not being more like, "Hey, if we're all frustrated by the same thing, the more people that say it, the more power it has." Whether it's this mentality of you know, just don't ever say anything that's less than positive and wonderful.
To me, it's not about that. It's like let's just all identify this thing. Like right now, everybody that I talked to is saying the same thing. We’re having a hard time hiring people. The more that the public knows about what's going on with small businesses, the more it becomes obvious that it's not just Mr. Friendly’s, but it’s other places.
You’ve also been critical of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Do you want to elaborate on why you feel that way?
I'll just say, I think that again, it was the lack of a statewide effort to help the small independent places as opposed to waiting on the feds to get you some money. And I also just think that there were missed opportunities to kind of create more unique ways to reach out to restaurants and bars. I felt like we just owe it to each other more, and especially with an association where it's people that have known each other for so long and have always supported each other. There's power in that and it goes far beyond that.
I mean, it goes to your legislature, legislators and lots of things like that. I think everybody got caught in a waiting game and got used to being in the waiting game. The longer we waited, the further away it got separated. At the same time there was no game plan for them either. I do get that. But how could anybody in my position not feel a little bit chapped to think that, "Hey, if this or that, what happens?"
Maybe things are different for us or for other places. It just felt like it was all like, "Let's just look towards Washington."