Brown paper to-go bags line the counter of Al’s Breakfast, where plates of eggs and hashbrowns and mugs of piping hot coffee were once consumed by hungry patrons. The items inside the restaurant’s brown bags, however, aren’t your usual brunch suspects.
The bags contain a spinach salad with fresh fixings like avocado, grapefruit and jicama, a lamb stew with polenta, roasted Brussels sprouts and veggies with a honey-chipotle glaze and a lime white chocolate tart finished with a topping of berries — not your typical Al’s order.
But typical food is for typical times, and the past year has been anything but typical for the restaurant industry. That’s why in May, Alison Kirwin, the owner of Al’s Breakfast, decided to offer a weekly staff meal special to the Twin Cities community.
For $50, customers will get two large servings of an assortment of different weekly specials: a “three-course culinary delight,” according to employee Andrew Wilkins. From Christmas lamb shanks to summertime prosciutto and melon, the weekly options offer a new and refreshing take on their regular takeout operation.
What initially began as a way to feed the staff through the pandemic evolved into a creative approach to keep the restaurant relevant and offer customers something different. By Monday of each week, customers can order the meals advertised through Al’s social media, newsletter and on their website and pick them up in store every Wednesday.
Al’s Breakfast employee Will Harris said the staff meals are a great option for students. Although they are advertised as two servings, the meals will last you a few days, Harris said. All you have to do is heat them up.
“It’s relatively profitable and … it also is fun for me to have a little bit more creativity with what we’re doing and just to get to show off some of my other skills,” Kirwin said. Along with profitability and relevance, the extra cash helps “keep the lights on” at the iconic restaurant and gives the employees a free weekly meal.
Al’s employee Olive Weston has grown up with Kirwin’s cooking. Weston, Kirwin’s goddaughter and niece, has fond memories of her aunt’s best dishes that she’s made in and out of the restaurant.
“I think it’s really cool that the people that know her as making hashbrowns and pancakes every week — which are amazing and delicious too — but I think it’s great that she gets to show all of these people that have known her for many years over at Al’s all the other amazing things that she can cook,” Weston said. “They’re spot-on every week and always impressive.”
The close quarters that make the dining experience so unique are also the reason that Al’s won’t be able to return to indoor dining until a majority of the community is vaccinated, Kirwin said. Until then, the staff meals and the takeout model allow the restaurant a way to stay a part of the University community.
Kirwin said the area neighborhoods have been supportive throughout the pandemic, but business is nowhere near where it used to be pre-pandemic.
The day when we are back, wolfing down hashbrowns, bumping elbows with our breakfast bar strangers and listening in on everyone else’s conversation feels far away for now.
“I would do anything to get back to that,” Kirwin said. “It’s going to be a tough go for the next nine months but I think we’re gonna make it out on the other side.”
You can sign up for the weekly staff meal newsletter here.