Alison Kirwin Q&A

January 20, 2020
Alison Kirwin takes over the iconic Al's Breakfast.

“I once served Frances McDormand just after watching one of her movies. I couldn’t figure out why this woman looked so familiar. Only at the end of meal did I finally recognized this polite customer. It was probably better that way.”

Could you ever have imagined when you took a job at Al’s in the mid-90s that you’d still be there now and actually own the place?

When I started at Al’s, I don’t think I was thinking very far ahead in life. Al’s was a fun place to work, and it fit in well with the rest of my dancing and traveling life. But, I think Al’s is where I learned a lot about food and creativity. My bosses gave me a lot of freedom early in my career. It was probably only a few years in when I thought that Al’s might be a good lifelong fit.

Does it ever get stressful having to shuffle people in and out in a timely fashion, with hungry customers hovering behind the people in the 14 stools?

That’s just part of the game at Al’s, and it can actually be kind of fun. It’s part of the technique that you learn when you start working the counter. Usually offering a coffee to-go is all it takes, but sometimes you have to be a bit more blunt.

What is the most popular item on the menu? Has it changed through the years?

We have always been known for our Wally-blue pancakes. They are near the top of the list, for sure. In the mid- to late-90s, we started making our Jose — poached eggs, homemade salsa and cheddar on top of hashed browns. When I started it wasn’t even printed on the menu. Now it makes up a healthy portion of our sales.

Do you find that U of M students appreciate the place as much as ever?

I think so. The student population is where we get a lot of our lifelong customers.

You have a dance background and still teach at Ragamala Dance Company. Do you find there are creative similarities between food and dance?

I think my teaching dance is helpful in my management style. It is where I learned to train people and correct behavior without totally offending employees. Maybe they think otherwise. As for as the dancing, when you work in such a small space, all movement is a dance. Navigating around people and obstacles becomes part of the rhythm of the work. I also learned a lot about food from my dance teacher, Ranee Ramaswamy. She would invite me to eat with her at her house after lessons. I fell in love with Indian food. We also used to hold Ragamala fundraising dinners at Al’s and I learned a lot about cooking Indian food through those experiences.

I bet you’ve served some incredibly famous people through the years. Is there one that sticks out to you as being particularly unforgettable?

I once served Frances McDormand just after watching one of her movies. I couldn’t figure out why this woman looked so familiar. Only at the end of meal, did I finally recognized this quite polite customer. It was probably better that way. John C. Riley also came in recently, after performing with the New Standards. That was really fun to watch him on stage one night and serve him breakfast the next morning.

How early do you have to wake up to prepare for the morning shift? Is it unbearable or are you used to it?

We get to work about a half hour before we open. It’s not so bad. I just have to start moving without thinking when the alarm goes off.

It must be a powerful feeling to be a steward of an institution that means so much to people. Does it ever get old hearing from people who love the place?

That’s exactly it! In some ways, owning Al’s isn’t like owning another business. It has been around a lot longer than me, and if I don’t screw it up, it will be around long after I leave. It is a strange responsibility.  I feel like my job is being a steward of this tradition and space. I just have to try not to mess it up!

How many regulars does Al’s have? People who come at least once a week?

I have never really counted them, but they are what keeps us going. We have a ton of people who have been eating at Al’s regularly for decades. It’s amazing.

They say running a restaurant is one of the hardest businesses to run because you throw inventory away every day. Is it as tricky as it seems to stay in the black and hit your margins? What’s the secret?

I think Al’s is different than most restaurants due to our size. We don’t have a whole lot of storage space, so it’s not really common to keep ingredients around long enough to have to throw them away. Because we only have 14 seats, it’s not too hard to keep the place reasonably full. For that reason, our inventory numbers don’t fluctuate too much.

You don’t accept credit cards but maintain paid-in-advance house accounts, recorded in paper booklets under the counter. Is it challenging to train in new people into the system?

This is one thing I take a bit of crap for sometimes. We send people to the nearby ATMs all the time. Most people don’t have a problem with it, but I occasionally get an angry email wondering why we haven’t joined the rest of the world in the 21st century. I bet I’d have just as many people (regulars) giving me crap for changing if we decided to accept credit cards.

Al’s makes everything from scratch and has since day one. Do you find that customers appreciate that more and more these days as part of the farm-to-table trend?

I think people have always appreciated this, whether they know it or not. There is a reason why our pancakes and hashed browns are so good, and it’s because they don’t come out of a box. It makes a huge difference!

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about running a business?

My partner, Doug Grina, who just retired after more than 40 years, told me a long time ago to make sure it’s fun. If it’s fun, it won’t wear you out.