Masked behind the business’ closed doors, there have been a lot of changes in the dining room at Al’s French Frys.
The iconic, nostalgic, red and white theme remains, but the staff at Al’s has been busy as bees making alterations.
When Gov. Phil Scott gives the okay for patrons to flock inside the local watering hole, they will notice heightened seatbacks acting as barriers between diners. The seating area has been divided from the kitchen with glass barriers. And partitions along the ordering line block patrons from the grill.
In the bathroom, upgrades include new touchless appliances.
“We are trying to be at the front of this thing and doing everything we can to make people feel comfortable,” said Shane Bissonette, Al’s owner and second generation “Fry Guy.”
He added it has been challenging to plan reopening with state plans changing quickly, but that the restaurant is working to ensure it’s ready for whatever the next step may be.
Bissonette plans to have one of his workers solely devoted to sanitation upon reopening. Outside, about 12 picnic tables were arranged at appropriate social distance, with a carnival tent covering some. Al’s also plans to expand outdoor seating in its garden and flower beds.
“We have to kind of utilize as much space as we can for seating to try and make a go of it,” Bisonette said.
Starting on Friday, May 22, Al’s was able to welcome diners to those outdoor stations.
But making “a go of it” during the pandemic hasn’t come without challenge. In recent months the only constant at Al’s seems to be change.
In early March, the eatery had to limit the number of diners inside to enable social distancing. By March 17, workers had to pivot to a curbside, pickup-only model. Al’s has taken on delivery service and recently reopened its ice cream windows, with a social distancing queue.
“We were concerned, honestly, when the initial shut down started, about how long we would be able to kind of sustain,” Bissonette said. “It wasn’t a rosy picture.”
Two long-time employees were laid off in the interest of protecting their health. Bissonette said Al’s continues to cover their health care and hopes they will return to work once it’s safe.
Other employees had their hours reduced at the beginning of the pandemic. For the first time in Al’s 75-year history, the restaurant put out a tip jar for its workers. The tips poured in, leveling out workers’ wages to their usual level.
“Some people would leave a $50 bill on a $5 order,” Bissonette said. “We have a lot of great support from the community.”
Employees’ hours are beginning to get back to normal, and Al’s is beginning to hire new workers for the summer ice cream season.
But running the restaurant under capacity is not profitable.
“We can sustain it, fortunately longer than most, but it’s not going to be a long-term thing, is our hope,” Bissonette said.
For now, the restaurant maintains its online ordering and pick-up model, with its outside ice cream window.
“I’d love to just thank everybody for their support,” he said. “It’s been huge and it’s kind of what’s gotten us through this whole thing so far.”