How Al’s Breakfast is bringing people together

July 07, 2021

Want to get closer to your neighbors? Eat at Al’s Breakfast, a Minneapolis diner that’s been a fixture in the Dinkytown neighborhood for decades.

 

Al’s Breakfast might only be a few feet wide, but it’s reputation is far bigger than its square footage. Al’s has gotten nationwide recognition in food magazines and on television, but most of the love comes right from the locals. Located in Dinkytown, a Minneapolis neighborhood adjacent to the University of Minnesota, parents and grandparents have been passing Al’s down to their kids for generations. Owner Alison Kirwin has worked behind the counter since 1996, and she’s seen firsthand just how large an impact small businesses make in a community.

 

What makes Al’s unique?

“Being that [Al’s] used to be an alley, we’re sandwiched in between two buildings and it’s 10 feet wide with 14 seats at the counter and nothing else. It forces us to be intimate with our customers in a way you wouldn’t think to be. It forces people to come together in a weird little community. If it wasn’t for sitting at the counter with these people they see week after week, a lot of these people would have never gotten to know each other. It forces people to make new friends and form a community. The space that we’re in facilitates that.

The freedoms we have as staff at Al’s lets us be who we are. We don’t have to go out of our way to be polite to people, we can be as snarky and funny and brazen as we want to. It makes for a more real experience sometimes, but it’s also more theatrical. We’ve had lots of theatre people [on staff] over the years, and there’s always someone at the counter juggling or telling jokes. Our space lends itself to that really well.”


Why is Al’s so special to Dinkytown residents?

“Back before the 1950s, there was a huge train changing in the area. There were all these transient employees coming in. The whole neighborhood was filled with little diners and restaurants. Over time, so many things have changed. Even now, it’s changing faster than ever before. Al’s has been a constant along with things that are now gone, but we’re still here. Maybe it’s because we take up so little space that nobody needs us to move anywhere. Between the fact that we have good food and community, it’s been carefully passed down by University of Minnesota students’ parents and grandparents. Part of making the community at Al’s has always been inviting people back.”

 

What dish is Al’s best known for?

“In the 90s, Gourmet magazine shared a version of our pancakes. We’ve continued to get a lot of press about our walnut blueberry pancakes. The other thing on the top of people’s list is our Jose omelet. Everything at Al’s is made from scratch, our pancake batter is all homemade, and our Jose is our poached eggs with cheddar on top of hash browns with salsa. We make our own salsa and poach eggs the right way. It’s delicious.”

 

What makes small businesses like Al’s so important for building community?

“Small businesses are at the core of everything we all do. Everybody has a chance to be an entrepreneur and make their own way in life, and they give people a chance to be creative with something they love to do. It gives people the chance to experience the personality of lots of different people and ideas. It opens the door for lots of people to become the next entrepreneur in the next generation of people. It’s important that people see what you can accomplish with lots of hard work.” 

 

Inspired by businesses making positive impacts in their communities? Read on to learn how this woman started and expanded her salon business beyond just hair.

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