Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Al's Breakfast

Al's Breakfast
Address: 413 14th Avenue SE
Neighborhood/s: Dinkytown, Minneapolis, Minnesota
City/locality-
State/province
Minneapolis, Minnesota
County-
State/province:
Hennepin County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year built: 1936
Primary Style: Vernacular
Historic Function: Restaurant
Current Function: Restaurant
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Wood
First Owner: William Simms
Part of the Site: {{{site_name}}}

Dinkytown Minneapolis Hennepin

Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, Minnesota
(44.9810408° N, 93.2353262° WLatitude: 44°58′51.747″N
Longitude: 93°14′7.174″W
)


Al's Breakfast is reportedly the narrowest restaurant in the city of Minneapolis, at a width of ten feet (3.0 m). Al's Breakfast (Dinkytown Branch) is crammed into a former alleyway between two much larger buildings and is located in the city's Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota.

The restaurant's 14 stools have seated generations of local students, along with notable figures such as writer James Lileks and humorist Garrison Keillor, all of whom consider the tiny diner to be a significant icon of the state.

The restaurant as it is today came into being in 1950 when Al Bergstrom parted ways with another neighborhood restaurateur. Bergstrom had gained experience at the griddle and in kitchen management in the 1940s while working for John L. "Jack" Robinson during summers at a popular Minnesota State Fair cafeteria.

The Dinkytown building he purchased dates back to 1937 when a neighboring hardware store erected a shed in the alleyway to hold sheet metal and plumbing parts. This was eventually rented out and was a Hunky Dory hamburger stand by the time Bergstrom took it over. The new owner renamed the diner to Al's Café and first opened the doors on May 15. Initially, he produced three meals a day, seven days a week, but scaled back the operation to simply be a breakfast outlet after one year.

Bergstrom retired and passed the restaurant to his nephew Phil Bergstrom in 1973–1974. Doug Grina and Jim Brandes eventually took over around 1980, and have continued to operate the diner in the same way. The recipes and short-order cooking style that Al Bergstrom developed remain the same to this day.

Contents

History

Physical Description

Located in the commercial district of Dinkytown, adjacent to the University of Minnesota East Bank Minneapolis campus, Al’s Breakfast Shop at 413 Fourteenth Avenue SE adjoins Simms Hardware to the south and the building at 417 Fourteenth Avenue to the north. Approximately 10 feet wide and 50 feet long, Al’s Breakfast Shop resides in what was once the alley between its adjacent properties. Simms Hardware and Al’s Breakfast Shop comprise the northeasterly 55 feet of lot 10 of block P. The primary space of Al’s Breakfast is the dining area, which is dominated by a long counter of yellow Formica trimmed with metal. Fourteen stools with red leather seats and white metal bases sit along the south side of the counter. Four pendant lamps, installed by Al in 1972, hang above the counter (Carman, 1973).


Al's Breakfast Shop: a representation of trends in diners

Alfred “Al” Bergstrom opened what was originally called Al’s Cafe as a typical diner in 1950. Previously Al worked across the street at the Dutch Treat Cafe, a large cafeteria style eating establishment, where he was chef from 1948 to 1949. He decided that he didn't like working at such a large place and bought the Hunky Dory hamburger stand across the street at 413 Fourteenth Avenue SE (Nelson, 2003). The property housed various restaurants since 1939, but faced nearly annual turnover of ownership until Al Bergstrom (City Directories, 1937-1950).

He served three meals a day, seven days a week for the first seven years. He eventually decided to cut the operational hours because “The natural thing to do was to go into the breakfast thing. One of the hardships in a restaurant is the waste. In breakfast there is no waste whatsoever” (McLeister, 1973). The name was changed to Al’s Breakfast Shop in 1958 when the establishment began serving only breakfast (City Directory, 1958). Al Bergstrom officially retired in 1973, although he continued to act as the occasional short-order cook.

Al’s Breakfast Shop epitomized the traditional American diner from the brief time period after World War II before the boom of the ever growing and changing diners of the 1950s. It displayed the patterns of dining establishments in Minnesota during this time period and the commercial development of Dinkytown, vital to the University community at the end of World War II (Lehmberg & Pflaum, 2001). As a repurposed tool shed it retained the intent behind the idea of using the available materials that developed with the reuse of street cars. Similarly it kept to the early dimensions of 10 feet by 30 feet for the dining area with only 14 stools along the counter, which aligned with the trend in Minnesota toward smaller dining establishments and the Midwestern production of small scale diners (Carman, 1973). As a reaction to the continued development of chain restaurants in the area and the pressure to appear as a chain establishment, or perhaps as a joke by the owner about the establishment’s uniqueness, there is a window sign announcing that it is the Dinkytown branch of Al’s Breakfast (Haga, 2000). The business continued to keep the tradition of short-order cooking that characterized the original diners and was popular in Minneapolis starting in the 1930s ("1950: Al's Breakfast," 2001). Additionally the bartering of goods and the acceptance of pre-paid scrip books was utilized since the early 1950s at Al’s Breakfast Shop, a reminder of practices used during hard times in the nation (Nelson, 2003; Haga, 2000).


Al's Breakfast Shop: a part of Dinkytown community

At Al Bergstrom’s retirement party on May 15, 1973 a frequent customer since 1951 Governor Wendell Anderson gifted “a framed proclamation officially commemorating May 15 as Al Bergstrom Day.” It stated that Al’s “wholesome food and warm hospitality have made breakfast a Dinkytown tradition for 23 years” (McLiester, 1973; Nelson, 2003). But Al’s Breakfast Shop has always been more than a place to eat the first meal of the day; it has been a place that builds community.

Al’s Breakfast Shop has been acting as a cultural place and inspirational force since 1950. The impact can be seen in the work of writers and musicians. The inspiring nature of Al’s Breakfast has taken this local community resource and allowed it to be felt by those outside of Minneapolis.

Beyond its frequent listing in any local guide to Minneapolis, Al’s Breakfast appeared in various writings in the genres of fiction, autobiography, and cookbooks. Fictional tales including: The Dead Survivors: A Mars Bahr Mystery, one of a series of murder mysteries that take place in Minneapolis (Erickson, 2002); Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb, a fictional account about troubled teenagers living in Minnesota (Rabasa, 2011); and Oracle and Other Stories (Dougles, 2005) utilized Al’s Breakfast a setting easily understood by any who have visited an old style dinner. In an autobiography about family trials Al’s Breakfast is a stop along the way in Highway 61: A Father-and-Son Journey Through the Middle of America (McKeen, 2003).

For cooks across the country Al’s Breakfast first appeared in the October 1994 issue of Gourmet Magazine featuring their recipe for Buttermilk Pancakes ("Recipes: Taste 50-Inspired," 2012). More recently this recipe was featured in Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, along with mention of their 2004 receipt of a James Beard Award for being an American classic (Fieri, 2013).

In the music world Al’s Breakfast has also inspired, in 1982-1992 David Baldwin a music professor at the University of Minnesota and an Al’s Breakfast regular, wrote “a series of works for brass quintet and a concerto for trumpet…as tokens of his regard for this extraordinary establishment.” Featuring scores with names that recall the atmosphere of the diner like Eat Your Load and Hit the Road, EsBs & OJ, Two Scrambled with Cheddar, Al’s Forever, and Ugly Bacon, the spirit of Al’s Breakfast Shop was portrayed in brass (Baldwin, 1995).


A Brief History of American Diners

The diner had become a significant national symbol by the 1960s due to their distinctive appearance and home-cooked food for a reasonable price. The start of the diner was in New England in the form of a horse-drawn wagon serving food in 1872. This transitioned into the diner through the expansion of the wagon to allow patron seating. The standard dimensions of the cart in 1890 were sixteen feet long, seven feet wide, and ten feet tall. Starting in the early 1900s the wagons began to be placed in permanent locations to increase daytime business (Gutman, 2000). The permanent locations also allowed an expansion in the menu with the practicality of a stationary structure; however, “even today it remains oriented toward the meat-and-potatoes audience that was its original clientele” (Pillsbury, 1990).

Following World War I the diner industry boomed along with the general prosperity of the country. By the mid 1920s many were being mass-produced and shipped by train across the country. Railroad lines could not accommodate anything wider than ten foot six inches, which led the average diner size to be thirty feet long and no more than ten and a half feet wide. Diners of this era began to add tables and switch to table service dining in order to increase female patronage under the belief that women felt uncomfortable seated at the counter stools, forcing diners to grow in size. This trend halted briefly during the Great Depression (Gutman, 2000).

At the end of the Great Depression diners were declared “depression-proof,” as compared to traditional restaurants, because of the continued need of the public to eat affordably. The survival of these diners depended on small staff size increasing the desire for smaller diners in the early thirties. These small establishments were specifically short-order cooking style instead of table service. Again after World War II small diners flourished with the investments of returning soldiers. Despite these temporary periods of smaller-size diners the general trend nationwide was for larger models. The only known manufacturer to continually keep a small model in production was a Midwestern manufacturer—Valentine Manufacturing Inc. located in Wichita, Kansas (Gutman, 2000). Valentine Manufacturing produced small scale diners from the 1930s to 1970s. They specialized in eight and ten-seat models that could be operated by one or two people. One of their post-war sales brochures stated that “The individual operator is assured of a permanent, self-sustaining revenue where he becomes his own boss and is not subservient to someone else. His immediate family may assist in the operation of each unit, as only two operators are required on each shift when it is running to capacity. During slow periods of business, one operator can do all the work and give good and efficient service, thereby holding the overhead to a minimum, with corresponding high profits” ("History of Valentine Diners," 2013).

Throughout the history of diners the majority were built in factories. However, part of the unique aesthetic of the diner comes from the repurposing of other structures to house them. Most notably the repurposing of trolley cars, streetcars, and railroad dining cars that flourished when cities discontinued their public transportation services (Gutman, 2000; Pillsbury, 1990). The aesthetic that developed out of city style transportation is a reminder to the dominance of city-based diners in an era when it is assumed that diners “are out on the highway, sitting around waiting for motorists and truck drivers. Some are, but most of them are in the large cities” (Ehrlich, 1949).

In the 1950s the growing desire of families to eat out caused diners to increase in size, with the short-order cook hidden behind kitchen doors, and a change in aesthetics with larger windows and steel accents (Gutman, 2000). The increased tendency to eat out also caused a large growth in the number of diners, starting with approximately 600 in 1920 to well over 4,500 in 1948 (Ehrlich, 1949). A large scale homogenizing of roadsides with nationwide chains altered the role of diners in the 1960s. The continual replacement of diner buildings with the newest model when they began to rundown often caused the same diner to go through many faces during its lifetime (Gutman, 2000). This trend took away from the original diner experience, described as a place where “You’re apt to stick your elbow into your neighbor’s coffee, and the wind blows through the cracks around the doors, and the car gets a little noisy and stuffy when crowded, but there [is] good cheer,” as well as the require quality homemade meal (Ehrlich, 1949).


References

“About JBF Awards.” James Beard Foundation. The mechanism, n.d. Web. 28 March, 2013. <http://www.jamesbeard.org/awards/about>. Web.

Baldwin, David. Concerto for Al’s Breakfast, 1992. Montrose, CA: Balquhidder Music, 1995. Print.

Baldwin, David. More Music for Al’s Breakfast, 1984. Montrose, CA: Balquhidder Music, 1995. Print.

Baldwin, David. Music for Al’s Breakfast I, 1982. Montrose, CA: Balquhidder Music, 1995. Print.

Baldwin, David. Music for Al’s Breakfast III, 1987. Montrose, CA: Balquhidder Music, 1995. Print

Carman, John. “Al’s campus fare…well, it’s impressive.” Minneapolis Star. 15 May, 1973. Print.

City Directory. Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MN. 1937. Volume 2.

City Directory. Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MN.1938. Volume 2.

City Directory. Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MN. 1958. Volume 2.

Dougles, W. Strawn. Oracle and Other Stories. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House, 2005. GoogleBooks.

Ehrlich, Blake. “The Diner Puts on Airs.” Saturday Evening Post 19 June 1949, Vol. 220 Issue 51: 34-134. Web.

Erickson, KJ. The Dead Survivors: A Mars Bahr Mystery. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. GoogleBooks.

Fieri, Guy. Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Page 142-144. Print.

Grina, Doug. Personal interview. 3 Apr. 2013.

Gutman, Richard J.S. American Diner: Then and Now. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2000. Print.

Haga, Chuck. “Al’s dishes up 50 years of breakfast.” StarTribune [Minneapolis, MN]. 12 May 2000. A1-A20. Print.

Haley, Andrew P. Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Print.

“History of Valentine Diners.” Kansas Historical Society. 2013. Apr 8, 2013. Web. <http://www.kshs.org/p/history-of- valentine-diners/10396>. Web.

Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

Jakle, John, and Keith Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999. Print.

Liebs, Chester H. Main street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

Lehmberg, Stanford, and Ann M. Pflaum. The University of Minnesota: 1945-2000. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.

MacNeice, Jill, et al. Roadside Food. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1986. Print.

Mariani, John. America Eats Out. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991. Print.

McKeen, William. Highway 61: A Father-And-Son Journey Through the Middle of America. New York: W.W. Northon & Company, Inc., 2003. GoogleBooks.

McLeister, Joey. “Al reflects of 23 years of Dinkytown breakfast business.” Minnesota Daily 18 May 1973, Vol. 74 No. 157. Print.

Nelson, Rick. “Al’s Breakfast founder dies at 97.” StarTribune [Minneapolis, MN]. 11 June, 2003. A1-8. Print.

Pillsbury, Richard. From Boarding House to Bistro. Boston: Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1990. Print.

Rabasa, George. Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb. Arizona: Unbridled Books, 2011. GoogleBooks.

“Recipes: Taste 50-inspired.” StarTribune [Minneapolis, MN]. 23 May, 2012. Web.

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