Doug Grina’s gravel-etched bark reverberated through his native habitat: the 14-seat counter that constitutes Al’s Breakfast.
“Eggs Bennie and a short Wally Blues,” he bellowed, confirming an order for eggs Benedict and a pair of the restaurant’s trademark blueberry-walnut pancakes.
Blessed with prizefighter-like stamina and a voice that’s equal parts vaudevillian and Shakespearean, this pancake potentate has presided over Dinkytown — from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., anyway — since the late 1970s. Now that he’s hit 70, Grina has decided to pass his spatula to the next wave of Al’s leadership. It’s quite a culinary legacy, especially given his earlier vocational ambitions in experimental theater and horticulture.
What is surely Minnesota’s tiniest restaurant dates to May 15, 1950. Namesake owner Al Bergstrom sold it in 1973 (he died in 2003 at 97), and by the late 1970s, Al’s was under the tutelage of Grina and business partner Jim Brandes.
As the decades passed, teeny Al’s grew in stature. The James Beard Foundation christened the restaurant with its “America’s Classics” award in 2004.
Brandes retired three years ago, and now it’s Grina’s turn. Alison Kirwin, a 23-year Al’s veteran and co-owner since 2016, is taking the sole ownership reins.
A week before his last shift, Grina, who could have made a name for himself in stand-up comedy, discussed his strategy for dealing with job-related repetition, what he won’t miss about working and the secret to Al’s longevity.
Q: How did you find Al’s? Or, how did Al’s find you?
A: I wasn’t going to make a living with the kind of theater that I loved — it’s now called performance art — and I wanted other stuff in my life, like a house. I had a buddy who said that I should get a part-time job at Al’s. I had a bunch of friends who worked here. This was 1977.
Philip — he was Al’s nephew — he didn’t want to hire me. The guys had oversold me to him. They told him that I knew all about food, and that I really loved cooking, and that I was good in theater and fooling around. And he said, “I’m not hiring that guy. He’s going to come in and take over this place.” He was right. Two months after I’d started working, I’d changed the way he cooked his omelets and the way he presented his scrambled eggs. A year later he asked me to buy him out.
Q: How have you dealt with repetition? For example, how many pancakes do you think you’ve made?
A: Oh, millions. I know that I’ve touched well over a million eggs. I told people a long time ago that Sisyphus is not just a myth. The way you enjoy life is not looking at the pile of potatoes, but the one that you’re working on. And really, that’s it.
Q: You’ve spent your working life in a claustrophobic space. How did you manage?
A: It’s odd, considering that I’m not really good in crowded places. But one of the things that I learned about the psychology of that is task focus. That can eliminate that anxiety, because you don’t notice anything other than what you’re doing.
Q: What’s the first order of retirement? Sleeping late?
A: I’m not that person. Introverts don’t sleep late. I go bed at 8:30, and I’m up at 5:30. That’s going to stay.
Q: Will you continue to cook?
A: I do all the cooking. My wife has cooked maybe five meals in 37 years. When I leave here for the day, I switch off Al’s, stop at the co-op on my way home and buy ingredients to make something. I love cooking, and I look forward to it.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for Alison?
A: She doesn’t need any advice from me. She’s already done amazing things. She’s in charge. I gave up saying, “That’s not the way you’re supposed to that.” Life is about change. They’re going to work it out.
Q: What keeps this place thriving? Is there a secret recipe?
A: People pick up on how much fun we’re having. It’s an intimate experience. I think we get a lot of people who don’t have a lot of social interaction, then they come here and they’re part of the family. We sell a lot of different things here, not just breakfast, and we try to do it all well. We try to make people laugh, we try to make really good food, we try to have fun with each other. One of my rules is, “If something is wrong, blame someone who is not here.”
Q: Are there a lot of former Al’s employees out there?
A: Hundreds, probably. We just had a guy who is picking up a few shifts who hasn’t worked here since the ’90s. We never really get rid of people; they just go on hiatus. Al’s gets into your system. For a lot of people, it’s the best job they’ve ever had in terms of lack of interpersonal politics and poison. It’s fun, and they make a reasonable amount, especially now. I think one of the best things the city has ever done is raise the minimum wage. That should be done all over the country.
Q: Who are Al’s customers?
A: The fact that there are X-thousand more students in the neighborhood means that we went from maybe 25 percent of our business being students to maybe 40 percent. Our slow times used to be bad for us, economically. We had to save for them. We don’t have to do that anymore, because there are more students, more walk-by traffic. It helps that students are incompetent with kitchens — especially the guys, because they can’t make toast.
Q: How do you view your legacy?
A: When I took this job, I thought that there were two things that I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to turn it into a legal restaurant, because it was so far away from code. And I’ve pretty much done that. Just last week, I replaced that valve over there. The other thing is I wanted to increase our visibility, and I’m most proud that I’ve done that with a zero-dollar budget. We don’t advertise. I knew some people at the newspaper, and in radio and television, and I worked whatever I could that didn’t cost anything.
Q: Are there any big shots coming in to wish you well? You know, the governor dropping by for a waffle.
A: The governor doesn’t know who I am. Arne Carlson was in here all the time. I didn’t agree with his politics, but he’s a very personable and agreeable human being.
Q: And the late Wendell Anderson was an Al’s regular, right?
A: When he was in here, he didn’t want to be called anything but Wendy.
Q: Are you leaving the premises with any souvenirs?
A: I’m taking this [points to an impressive scar on his forearm]. It’s from a slicer. I didn’t turn it off before I cleaned it. It really wasn’t a bad injury, but it has left its mark. Besides, I intend to stick around. This is family. I can’t imagine myself not being a part of this place. Sometime in the spring, after I finish some projects around the house, I’ll probably start picking up some hours. Eventually I will realize that I still need some human contact.
Q: Are there aspects of your work that you’re relieved are ending?
A: Every Friday, for the last 40 years, I’ve been cleaning out that refrigerator, getting down on my hands and knees, scraping it out and cleaning it. Today is the next-to-last time that I ever have to do that.
Q: What do you think you’ll miss the most about Al’s?
A: I do have a really good time. And I have a sense of this place that is almost holistic. I see it breathing. It’s like an organism to me, and it’s an incredible feeling.