Longtime employee purchases Molly’s in downtown Hanover

Molly’s owner Jennifer Packard, center, stops to talk to regulars Luke Bellavance, left, of Strafford, Vt., and Dan Leggett, of Hanover, N.H., at Molly's Restaurant & Bar in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Packard, who started working at the restaurant as a host almost 30 years ago, took over this week. “I never thought I’d own it,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Molly’s owner Jennifer Packard, center, stops to talk to regulars Luke Bellavance, left, of Strafford, Vt., and Dan Leggett, of Hanover, N.H., at Molly's Restaurant & Bar in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Packard, who started working at the restaurant as a host almost 30 years ago, took over this week. “I never thought I’d own it,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Molly’s owner Jennifer Packard, right, hugs former owner Patty Milowsky outside Molly's Restaurant & Bar in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Packard worked for Milowsky and her husband for over two decades and said they still have a close relationship, with Milowsky often stopping by the restaurant to say hello. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Molly’s owner Jennifer Packard, right, hugs former owner Patty Milowsky outside Molly's Restaurant & Bar in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Packard worked for Milowsky and her husband for over two decades and said they still have a close relationship, with Milowsky often stopping by the restaurant to say hello. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-04-2024 4:17 AM

Modified: 01-10-2024 8:13 AM


HANOVER — At 40 years old, Molly’s has a new parent.

The mainstay Hanover brasserie that has made habitués of generations of Dartmouth College students, visitors and townies alike has been acquired by Jennifer Packard, a longtime manager of Molly’s for the Blue Sky Restaurant Group.

And Packard, who worked at Blue Sky for 29 years before officially stepping into ownership of Molly’s this week, has a message for the legions of patrons who look forward to the restaurant’s hearty portions of signature American fare, wood-fired brick oven pizza and inventive cocktails.

“I’m not changing a thing,” Packard said on Wednesday during an early afternoon break from the lunch rush. “People coming in won’t even know it other than to see me wandering around.”

Packard acquired Molly’s from Blue Sky owner Tony Barnett, who acquired the restaurant in 2018 along with Jesse’s Steaks, Seafood and Tavern on Route 120 from Marc and Patty Milowsky, for whom he worked.

In an interview with the Valley News, Barnett said at least for the time being he’s holding onto Jesse’s, as well as Dunk’s Sports Grill in Hanover and Snax in Lebanon, the two restaurants he opened under the Blue Sky umbrella.

Barnett said the reason to sell Molly’s came from a desire to “rebalance” his life — he recently became a grandfather in addition to being the father of two young children. There was also the realization that “I might have bitten off a little more than I could chew” with opening two new restaurants since acquiring Molly’s and Jesse’s.

“With four restaurants, it was quite a bit, and Jen’s been doing a great job managing Molly’s. So everything kind of fell into place, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and sell it,” Barnett said.

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(The Milowskys continue to own both the Molly’s and Jesse’s buildings and real estate).

Packard, an Alaskan native who now resides in Wilder, first went to work for the Milowskys at Jesse’s as a host in 1994. Under the couple’s tutelage, she worked her way up through a carousel of positions at Blue Sky until she reached the corporate office, where she oversaw hiring and human resources, marketing and advertising.

“Jen kind of did everything for the company, but she really didn’t have much operational experience,” Barnett said. “Then when COVID happened, we had to move her into operations, and she thrived.”

Packard said that Molly’s was able to snap back after the pandemic thanks in large measure to what she called “the strongest kitchen of any restaurant in the Upper Valley, hands down. I’d even say that against any of the other Blue Sky restaurants.”

She credited chef Ryan O’Day — who sets the menu — along with his 26-person kitchen staff with keeping the quality of the food at a level customers have come to expect.

“It always gets back to being the most consistent,” she said. “We have people in the kitchen who have been there for 20 years.”

The “front house” staff — servers, bartenders, bussers, hosts — total 42 full-time and part-time employees.

“We are probably one of the largest employers on South Main Street,” Packard said.

Although all restaurants have found it difficult to retain employees since the pandemic, Packard said business at Molly’s has been “really solid,” which she attributed to students and faculty from the college and customer traffic generated by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center a few miles away.

The Milowskys opened Molly’s Balloon — named after of one of their daughters — in 1983 in what had been the former Town and Country Dress Shop building on South Main Street. Then in 1998, they undertook a renovation and expansion of the restaurant, changing the name to Molly’s Restaurant and Bar and repositioning it as a college pub decorated with Dartmouth and Ivy League memorabilia.

Also continuing as part of Packard’s Molly’s management team are Andrea Field, Deborah Bundy and Doug Buskey.

Blue Sky’s Barnett did not rule out an eventual sale of Jesse’s, but he said finding a qualified buyer who understands the market is not so simple.

“There’s not a plan to sell Jesse’s specifically,” he said, adding that he is “open to the idea if the right opportunity came along, but it’s not like it’s for sale.” He said business at Dunk’s — which took over the space formerly occupied by Salt hill Pub — goes “up and down,” with the “up” portion coinciding when students are in residence.

Snax, Barnett said, is “still trying to find its footing. It’s doing better. It’s not losing money.”

As for Packard, although she now has only one restaurant to focus on, it does not mean her workload is any lighter. Molly’s is open every day of the year — except Christmas and Thanksgiving — and between morning prep and nightly cleanup, the restaurant is quiet only a few hours each day.

“The team laughs that I spend more time here than I do at my house,” she said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.