Al’s Breakfast: the Dinkiest place in Dinkytown — and the biggest reputation

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When Gov. Wendell Anderson, a former Gopher hockey star, introduced the new University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath around the athletic department in 1974, he started the day with breakfast at Al’s in Dinkytown.

The governor said Magrath should start the day at Al’s as he did as a student athlete. Their visit to athletic fields included a run to work off the calories.

Last summer, Tom McDonald, an attorney specializing in international law and former ambassador to Zimbabwe, returned to Al’s.

“This place got me through law school,” said McDonald, who graduated in 1978. “I try to come here every time I’m in town. I love the food, the atmosphere, the people. I’ve brought young lawyers when we’re here for business meetings.”

McDonald ate blueberry pancakes and bacon at Al’s 14-stool counter, while a chauffeur waited at the black Lincoln in front. Besides the pancakes, McDonald also recommends huevos rancheros.

Most customers walk, bike or drive themselves, like Alan Koppenhaber who commutes from Coon Rapids to work on the University’s phone system. “About eight months ago, I realized that the coffee and donuts I was getting from SA daily was not as good and healthy” as a breakfast at Al’s where he gets “two eggs and toast for about the same about of money.”

Al’s Breakfast, an unobtrusive 10-foot wide diner in Dinkytown, opens at 6 a.m. daily, except Sunday when it opens at 9 a.m. Getting there at 6 usually assures a place on one of the 14 red leather-covered stools.

Jeffrey Hunsberger, who works for the state, has been eating at Al’s since he was a teenager growing up in Southeast Minneapolis. “They make good food and they’re good people,” said Hunsberger, who often stops “to catch breakfast” between his Southwest Minneapolis home and his job in St. Paul.

Like former law students McDonald and Anderson, many people over several generations have returned to Al’s Breakfast to relive their college years.

During homecoming and student orientation seasons, parents often bring their student offspring to introduce them to Al’s as a Minnesota tradition.

“Kids bring parents and parents bring their kids,” said Al’s co-owner Doug Grina.

Tabletop pottery and a menu with founder Al Bergstrom’s silhouette.


“We’re obviously connected to the University, but we get people from all over the city as well,” said co-owner Jim Brandes. “Students may be introduced to us through the University and, after they’re out, they continue to come here.”

“It’s very seldom that freshmen and sophomores will step through the doors here,” Brandes said, to which Grina added, “Unless their parents bring them.”

Al’s Breakfast has also become symbolic. In fights over Dinkytown development earlier this year, people on all sides promised to protect Al’s Breakfast. Developers said their new buildings would make all Dinkytown businesses more viable while opponents want to preserve the buildings as they are.

 

Sugar, syrup, cream, grape jelly, salt and pepper are in hand-thrown pottery by local artists Peter Leach and Ben Krikava.


Al’s Breakfast, 413 14th Ave. S.E., the narrowest restaurant in the Twin Cities – about 10 feet wide – and perhaps the dinkiest place in Dinkytown, has become more significant than its size suggests.

In 2004, co-owners Doug Grina and Jim Brandes donned tuxedos to accept an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation in New York City. The medal, described as the Academy Award for restaurants, hangs from a ribbon on the wall behind the counter at Al’s.

“Distinguished by their timeless appeal, they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities,” the foundation’s website says of the award. “In the spirit of James Beard, who enjoyed a paper cone of fried belly clams as much as a white tablecloth dinner, we encourage you to visit these classics. You are sure to find a warm welcome, and deeply satisfying food.”


When the 14 stools are filled, customers wait along the wall waiting for the next opening. Sometimes lines extend outdoors onto the sidewalk.

Grina attributes Al’s media fame to a notice in a book by Jane and Michael Stern, travel writers who specialize in restaurants. Since then, Grina said, Al’s has been listed by the New York Times among the 10 best breakfast places and by USA Today among the 10 best pancake houses in the nation. (Pancakes can be ordered with whole wheat or buttermilk batter to which you can add blueberries, blackberries and/or walnuts.) A five-page article in Gourmet magazine in 1994 and a more recent and often-rerun visit from the Food Channel’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” have helped. (The “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” people have a blog with reader-submitted photos from Al’s.)

“Al’s is Nirvana for those of us who spend our lives in search of great diner breakfast,” Michael Stern says on his website. “Customers waiting for one of the fourteen stools at the counter stand hovering just above and behind those who are seated and eating. In the narrow space between the counter and the back bar … Al’s hash slingers race to and fro with seasoned aplomb.”

 

Server Justin “Justy” Rivet shows off a tattoo. Behind him the wall contains currency and postcards from around the world and the shelves hold dinosaur toys to entertain children, coffee cups, condiments among other things.

Publicity goes only so far, though. “It’s our regulars that make it for us,” Brandes said. “We do get a lot of people who see us on tv, but that’s not a driving force for us. If we relied on them, we’d be out of business.”

Regular customers agree. “I like the food and I like the people, including the regulars,” said Mark Erickson, who stopped at Al’s off and on for over 20 years on his daily walk from St. Paul to the Minneapolis campus where he worked.

Grina and Brandes remember Al Bergstrom, who founded the business in 1950. Bergstrom recalled riding his bicycle through an alley that was later blocked when the adjacent hardware store built a storage shed around 1937.

“I have looked under the floor and seen the cement alleyway,” Grina said. “This was a shed over an alley. You don’t see a lot of sheds that last for more than sixty years – 63 years as Al’s.”

The property was converted to an eating space that housed different restaurants with nearly annual turnover since 1939, said Madelyn Sundberg, a University graduate student doing historic preservation research.

 

Al’s Breakfast provided the backdrop for a media event involving the governor and the new University of Minnesota president on December 10, 1974. The evening Minneapolis Star (left inset) and the morning Minneapolis Tribune ran photos the next day. The Tribune ran this caption: “Anderson, Magrath chow down, then run it off. Gov. Wendell Anderson (center) sat down to breakfast Tuesday with C. Peter Magrath (left), president of the University of Minnesota, and Al Bergstrom, proprietor of Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. After pancakes at the 14-stool emporium, the governor spent the day at the university, where he jogged with Magrath and athletic-department officials, met with some student, faculty and administration leaders, and strolled around both Twin Cities campuses.” The Star photo topped a series of photos on Magrath and Anderson visiting the campus.

In 1950 Alfred “Al” Bergstrom quit his job as chef at Dutch Treat Café because the business was too large, Sundberg said. So he purchased the Hunky Dory hamburger stand across the street and opened Al’s Café. “By 1973 Al had cemented the role of Al’s Breakfast in the University of Minnesota community and retired after twenty-three years of short-order cooking.”

For the first seven years, she said, Al’s served three meals a day for seven days a week. When he changed the name to Al’s Breakfast in 1958, he added a jab at the growing number chain businesses by adding “Dinkytown Branch” under the name on the sign.

When Bergstrom retired on May 15, 1973, Governor Anderson declared an Al Bergstrom Day, sending his friend a framed official proclamation appreciating Al’s “wholesome food and warm hospitality.”


Jim Brandes, co-owner of Al’s Breakfast, spends a lot of time at the grill inside the front window where Al Bergstrom became a Dinkytown institution. A second, larger grill is in the kitchen in the rear of the building.

In the 1980s, University music Professor David Baldwin composed a series of works for brass quintets in honor of Al’s, and Sundberg listed three fictional stories and one memoir that use Al’s as a setting.

In 1974, Bergstrom sold the business to his nephew Phil Bergstrom, who formed a partnership with Brandes and another partner. Phil Bergstrom sold his interest to Grina in January 1979. Eventually, Grina and Brandes bought out the other investors.

Al Bergstrom had become a Dinkytown institution standing at the grill in his chef’s hat and white apron inside the café’s picture window.

Nearly all of the current employees have grilled there, including Brandes, Grina, Justin Rivet and Alison Kirwin, who creates special dishes for the weekends she works.

One recent special she posted on the Al’s Breakfast Facebook page on Halloween: “DAY OF THE DEAD-WEEKEND SPECIAL! Sweet Corn Tamales with 2 Fried Eggs, Chile/Seed-Nut Sauce, Beans. Saturday and Sunday only!!!”

Mary Rose Ciatti holds a stack of pancakes and waits for another from chef Doug Grina.

Restaurants have personality, Grina said. “I don’t think it’s my personality. It’s Al’s – people come in for different reasons. People working here recognize they can have personalities. They can be themselves” The mostly part-time employees are encouraged to rotate, learning all the tasks.

“Al established a personality for this place,” Grina said, adding that it involved fooling around, prearranged pranks and fun “that evolved into what you see before you today.” Grina has been known to juggle eggs and to pretend he just dropped your breakfast plate.

“What happens is that it begins to reflect the people who work here. We try to give the impression that we’re having fun,” Grina said.

Mary Rose “M.R.” Ciatti, who grew up in the neighborhood and lives in adjacent Northeast Minneapolis, started at Al’s in 1986 when Grina asked her to substitute for three months, and, she added, “the rest is history.”

Besides her friendly service, Ciatti is known for traffic-directing skills to manage the seating. First, she shouts, “move down to the phone” to keep customers moving into the building, rather than clustering at the door where a gathering could create the illusion of a larger crowd and longer wait.

The phone refers to the pay telephone that used to hang on the wall opposite the entrance. When the phone was removed years ago, Nic Benson, a regular customer and photographer, supplied a larger-than-life photo of a phone to replace it.

A photo of a telephone recalls the day a pay telephone provided a landmark toward which customers were told to move as they waited in line.

Ciatti also enforces rules about waiting. If you meet friends, you cannot hold a seat for them until they all arrive. When a group assembles, they wait together for the next open seats. If two stools open up that are not next to each other, she will ask seated customers to shift, creating a vacancy of two or more stools.

The sign “Beware of the attack waitress” behind the counter was not about her, she insists, but regular customers know not to take a seat without permission when she or Rivet is managing the traffic flow. As a result, customers move smoothly through the limited space, even on crowded days like those with big Gopher games that draw large numbers of students and alumni.

When pressed to guess, Grina estimated that they serve close to a thousand customers a week.

Workers Jim Brandes and Justy Rivet carefully navigate the narrow space behind the counter.

Besides menus on the yellow Formica counter, you will find cream and syrup pitchers, sugar and salt and pepper shakers created by local potters Peter Leach, who recently retired, and Ben Krikava, who used to work at Al’s.

Behind the counter, shelves contain cups, plastic dinosaurs to entertain children and hundreds of little yellow books that record prepaid breakfasts. Originally, they were coupon books but today the staff tallies the exact amounts invested and spent. Brandes said they’ve kept some of the prepaid records for decades in a box under the shelves.

Co-owner Doug Grina has only one pancake on the grill very early on a recent morning.

Besides Al’s, the hardware store building now houses Café Espresso Royal and five upstairs apartments. Although rumors abound about the building’s future, owner Paul Dzubnar says he has no plans to change the tenants.

Besides, he’s a fan of Al’s. “If I did anything ever, I would not move Al’s out because I like it so much,” said Dzubnar, CEO of Green Mill restaurants.

Dzubnar says he’s more concerned about repairing fire damage in two of his apartments. A fire on October 25 severely damaged one apartment and, by November 6, three of the apartments were occupied again, he said. Al’s never closed because of the fire and Espresso Royale Café was closed only a day and a half, he said.

Right after the second-story window blew out of the building and flames were spewing forth, Grina said, a customer ran into Al’s shouting: “Feed me quick. They might close you soon.”

The fire department brought the fire under control within a few minutes and Al’s service was not interrupted, despite the accumulating smoke, Grina said.

The fire, Sundberg said, may indicate how vulnerable the iconic building is and strengthen the argument for historic preservation – an idea that hasn’t yet elicited a lot of enthusiasm at Al’s.

The painted Simms Hardware sign provides evidence of the hardware store building that today houses a coffee shop and supports the Al’s Breakfast building.


Customers at Al’s continued eating despite a fire burning in the adjacent building, which houses Espresso Royale Café and upstairs apartments. Only the one apartment in which the fire started was seriously damaged. Al’s Breakfast is the blue-and-white striped awning just beyond the Espresso Royale coffee shop.


FULL DISCLOSURE: The reporter is a regular at Al’s. His favorite omelet contains smoked cheddar cheese, spinach, tomatoes and black olives – a variation of the Smoky omelet on the menu.


An omelet made with smoked cheddar, spinach, tomatoes, and black olives.



Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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