‘Al fresco’ is the dining trend of the year — simply out of necessity.
With limited indoor seating capabilities during the coronavirus pandemic, restaurateurs are being forced to get creative with outdoor seating options.
Creativity comes into play not only with lugging tables and chairs outside — often to newly blocked-off portions of roadway — but with how to keep customers warm as New England temperatures drop.
Andover officials are attempting to help prolong the experience by getting a sense of the town’s dining habits via an online survey.
“Outdoor dining has been an overwhelming success and we wanted to get some feedback as we develop plans for the fall and winter months,” Town Manager Andrew Flanagan said this week.
He noted, “Both the town and restaurant owners were interested in hearing from customers and residents about what has worked and how the next steps can be crafted to best meet expectations.”
The survey — available at andoverma.gov — starts with basic questions like age, ties to Andover, work conditions and household demographics.
It goes on to ask: Are you comfortable with eating indoors at a restaurant? Have you used a third-party food delivery service? Thinking ahead to the upcoming fall and winter months, how often will you go to a restaurant?
The survey builds to ask participants to rank options that would most entice them to eat outside during colder months, including tents, heaters, blankets, retail offers and incentives, and special restaurant offers and incentives.
Participants also have space to share thoughts about restaurant dining in their own words.
According to Flanagan, the town received just over 1,100 responses in a week, with plans to keep it open until Sept. 29.
Meanwhile, downtown Andover spots are continuing to cook for those willing to stop by.
LaRosa’s, an Italian cafe on Barnard Street that typically offers indoor seating, takeout and an intimate back patio, has successfully expanded into the street.
“There are a lot of people who tell me it’s their first time dining out since February,” said hostess Emma Kanell, who started working at LaRosa’s a month ago amidst the pandemic.
Shift supervisor Brendan Hart, more familiar with the restaurant’s customer trends over the last four years, said he has been hopeful after a rebound in business spanning several weeks.
“We’re seating every other table inside and 30 or more seats outside with heaters,” he said.
“I know the owner is trying to figure out how to stretch the outdoor dining. I’ve heard talk of foil blankets at every table, like you see people wrap themselves in at the end of marathons.”
Similarly, nearby at Salvatore’s, the third side of a large tent setup in the parking lot is expected this week. What started as an overhead covering will become enclosed as the weather gets colder, and eventually, heaters will be added.
“This is all new. So we’re going to be trying out different types to see what works best, what’s the most efficient,” said General Manager Kevin Branco.
The purchase of a new igloo-type structure will hopefully be a fun draw for customers as well, he said.
“It’s one of those clear, plastic, see-through structures like they have in Boston,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out different ways to make it fun and functional for people to keep dining outside.”
Inside, dividers are being ordered for a renovation and redesign that has been in the works longer than the pandemic. The plastic partitions are expected to allow for about 110 people indoors.
“We’ve got a new name, new menu, new everything coming at the beginning of October,” Branco said. “This just adds more planning, but we’re happy to see regulars and new customers who are supporting us through it.”
While top management grapples with logistics, diners just seem happy to be out now.
Hart said of LaRosa’s, “There’s an energy back here that was missing for a while during quarantine.”