It’s a short-order switcheroo. After more than four decades of blueberry-walnut pancake artistry, Al’s Breakfast co-owner Jim Brandes quietly slipped into well-earned retirement.
A new owner has stepped into Brandes’ role. True to the change-averse universe that is Al’s, Brandes’ replacement is a familiar face. She’s Alison Kirwin, a 20-year vet of the 14-seat Dinkytown treasure.
In a recent conversation at the restaurant’s yellow linoleum-topped counter, Kirwin and co-owner Doug Grina — his history with Al’s dates to the late 1970s — talked about their new partnership, shared stories from Al’s 66-year-history (the late Al Bergstrom first fired up the griddle on May 15, 1950) and revealed a few behind-the-scenes details of the Twin Cities’ tiniest restaurant.
Q: Alison, how does it feel to be an owner of a landmark restaurant?
Kirwin: I’m really excited about it. Jim officially retired in October, and at the end of October I signed the papers. It’s funny, because I feel like I’ve done the easiest transition that anyone could ask for in a restaurant, because I’ve bought something that almost runs itself. Al’s is a really comfortable place to get stuck. As I spent more time here over the years, it became clear to me that this was the place where I wanted to be.
Q: How did you get your start at Al’s?
Kirwin: I’ve been here for 20 years. I had a friend who was working here, and from time to time I’d come in and help finish up at the end of the day. One day someone needed a shift covered, and there was no one else who was available to do it, so I signed up. I consider myself self-hired. It was my 22nd birthday. Happy birthday! That’s how I always remember my anniversary here.
Q: Did you have any inkling that you were bound for a career in restaurants?
Kirwin: At the time I was a dance major at the University of Minnesota. I started working with Ragamala Dance Co., I thought that that was my path. But my first job was in a restaurant.
Q: And as a dancer, that means that you’re also working elsewhere, right?
Kirwin: As a young dancer, you can’t support yourself unless you have three other jobs at the same time. My work here was part-time, for the most part. I danced for a lot of years, always at Ragamala, and I always had other restaurant jobs, too. Maybe five years ago I started realizing that Jim and Doug were not the young guys that they once were, and they might one day actually retire, rather than die at the grill, which is what they claimed that they were going to do. I stopped dancing, and I saw the potential of owning this place, and changing things around here a bit.
Q: I’m sorry, did I just hear the word “change” associated with Al’s Breakfast?
Kirwin: There’s some potential here that’s a little bit untapped, that I would like to explore a bit. None of changes that I perceive for the future are going to be things that people will see when they walk in the door. There are times when we’re closed that we could utilize in some way, and I think that there are little things that need to be fixed around here, but other than that I don’t think that it needs a lot of changing. We’ll be adding a website, that’s big news.
Grina: She’s very excited, and every time she tells me that she has a new idea I have to tell her, “I’m 67 now, and I’m not going to be rejuvenated.”
Q: What was your first job in the restaurant?
Kirwin: You always start as a dishwasher. We like to think that dishwashing is the top of the heap at Al’s Breakfast, and you work your way down, or sideways, or something, to get up front.
Grina: Who doesn’t love the dishwashing station? People fight over that station. If you’re hung over, that’s the place to be. There’s not a lot of critical thinking involved, it’s just washing the dishes.
Q: How many people work at Al’s?
Kirwin: About a dozen. We have a maximum of five working at once.
Q: What’s it like to run a 14-seat restaurant?
Kirwin: A small space is tricky, because you have to fill it, all the time. Otherwise, you’re kind of screwed. There aren’t a lot of people who can do this successfully. I have this secret little dream of having a big empire of the smallest rooms in Minneapolis. Someday.
Q: How many customers sit down at Al’s on a daily basis?
Kirwin: On a busy Saturday, we do 180-ish. During the week, that’s when we get a lot of regulars, they’re maybe a third of our total. Our regulars are really important to us, I feel like I’ve known lots of them for my entire tenure here. A lot of new people get brought in by regulars. On the weekends, we get more tourists. I’m pretty sure that if you google “breakfast in Minneapolis,” we come up first. I think a lot of it is word of mouth.
Q: What’s the best time to visit Al’s and not encounter a line?
Grina: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, after 10 a.m.
Q: Good to know. How do you manage to keep Al’s, well, Al’s?
Kirwin: Our [employee] turnover is pretty small, and we have a set system that we work within. We don’t ask anybody to fix anything. We ask them to follow what’s been done before, and it seems to work. Our regulars get shaken up when we change anything around here, they notice the smallest thing. That’s part of what makes this place really comfortable. You know what you’re going to get when you come in.
Q: While Al’s doesn’t accept credit cards, you do maintain paid-in-advance house accounts, recorded in those little paper booklets under the counter. In a way, they’re the analog version of a gift card. How many are there?
Kirwin: There are probably 200 or 300 that get used pretty regularly. Some of them date back to the ’60s and ’70s.
Q: What are some of the menu’s top-selling dishes?
Kirwin: Our blueberry-walnut pancakes are definitely on the top of that list. Our “Jose” — it’s hash browns with salsa, poached eggs and Cheddar cheese — that’s probably 25 percent of what we sell on the weekend. The bacon waffle is way up there, too, it’s a perfect sweet-and-salty combination.
Q: I’m guessing that you might be one of the few Twin Cities restaurants to utilize a stovetop waffle iron. Yes?
Kirwin: We don’t have room for an electric waffle iron. Where would we put it? That dictates a lot of what we do here. We only have so many square inches in the place. So many cubic inches, for that matter. I’m proud of the fact that everything we serve is made from scratch. A lot of restaurants dumb their food down and use mixes for things as easy as pancakes. We really haven’t changed very much at all in the last 66 years.
Q: Do you hear a lot of Al’s-through-the-years stories?
Kirwin: A lot. Like, “The first time I came to Al’s, Al Bergstrom was over there, smoking while he was making my pancakes.” There’s a great picture of Al somewhere around here. He’s got a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and he’s flipping pancakes.
Q: Doug, how do you feel about this changing of the Al’s guard?
Grina: I’m very happy. I was happy enough with Jim, and we did pretty well with this place. But I didn’t agree with him about what a business is for — even that basic idea. It wasn’t the same for him as it was for me. But her understanding of what a restaurant is for, and what food is about, is a lot closer to mine. So this is a lot easier.
Q: Doug, are you thinking about retirement?
Grina: I always knew that somewhere around 70 I’d retire. I just took what is hopefully my last food manager’s license test. It’s good for three more years.
Kirwin: He claims that even after he quits being an owner, he’s going to stick around. That’s what he keeps telling me. “I’m never leaving,” he says.
Grina: I’m going to get rid of the responsibilities and work less, but I’ll keep working, for as long as I want. I like doing it.
Q: You’ve been at Al’s since the late 1970s. How did you land here?
Grina: I’d worked at an experimental theater company, and after seven years I decided that I couldn’t make a living at it. I went back to school. I wanted a degree in horticulture. My friend John was working here, and he advocated for me, and I started working here. Within two months I changed the way they cooked their omelets, and I changed the way they presented their scrambled eggs. In a year, Philip [founder Al Bergstrom’s nephew, and the restaurant’s second owner] asked me if I wanted to buy him out. And I thought, “I’d much rather do that than be a horticulturalist.”
I’d always thought that restaurant work was awful. The bosses are mean, and it’s tense and unpleasant. I didn’t want that. But then I realized that if I’m running the show, it’s not going to be that way. I really pushed my ensemble background. I made sure that everyone who comes into this place learns every job. Everything is equal, there’s no hierarchy, you just get things done.
Q: Nearly 40 years in the restaurant business is remarkable. What’s behind your career longevity?
Grina: It might be genetic. My dad got a job, and stuck there. Maybe I have that imprinted in me. But I can’t imagine working somewhere that I don’t like, and I absolutely love it here, every day. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
413 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-9991.
Open 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun.