At 10 on a Wednesday morning, Al’s Breakfast is jam-packed. James Brown’s “I Feel Good” blares on the radio, and the smell of bacon stretches out and fills 14th Avenue Southeast.
This morning, much like most, a line forms back to the door. A newspaper reporter is yelled at to move down to make room so people waiting inside have a chance to grab one of the 14 counter stools.
Being entertained by the staff is just part of the fun, along with many other long-standing traditions associated with the diner – a Dinkytown staple since 1950.
But one tradition at this greasy spoon is about to change.
Across the back counter are stacks of hundreds of “meal books.” The meal books allow customers to come in and eat without paying, provided the diner will see the money in time.
“Al used to comp a lot of meals; he eventually made a deal with a printer for the meal books,” said co-owner Doug Grina.
“(The books) originally started as a way for railroad workers to eat. When they got paid they could buy a meal book, and on their way back and forth through town they could use it without having any money,” Grina added.
The books resemble a set of coupons, with the name of the customer signed in black ink across the front cover.
All active books are out front for everyone to see; the inactive are filed behind the counter in alphabetical order in case the customer returns five, 10, 20 years later.
The books started at $5 and quickly made their way to the $20 mark. Now they will incur a third change.
They will soon take on a
running-tab format. The staff will keep track of visits on slips instead of having the coupons inside the books.
“It’s an emotionally pulling experience for us, because Al’s is a traditional place and we’ve had this system for 35 years,” Grina said.
Grina said he is not sure when the books will be in, but hopes it will be sooner than later, because the restaurant is down to only six or seven lonely meal books.
“Six people used their tickets today; on a typical day about 10 do,” Grina said.
Some come to Al’s for reasons other than meal books and staff entertainment.
A man off the street enters and wants a quarter. Employee Matt Koerner pops open the register and throws him a shiny 25-cent piece.
“He’s ripping off all the businesses up and down the street. He walks in everywhere and asks for a quarter; he’s making a ton of cash,” Koerner jokes.
Like fooling around and being sassy to customers and passers-by, the rest of Al’s traditions are expected to stay alive.
“We will still be keeping our profit sharing in chocolate,” Koerner said.
Grina added, “We also won’t be changing our ‘no fulfillment here’ corporate motto, and if the employees come in late, they still have to leave early; and first-time customers will still get asked if they’ve had their shots.”
Before the meal book transition, only one tradition has changed at Al’s.
“Al used to kiss all the girls that came in. If I continued that tradition I’d probably be arrested,” Grina said.
Jamie Yuccas welcomes comments at [email protected]