Unsung heroes of the pandemic

While many mom and pop restaurants have closed over the past 2 years, some have held on, with the help of the fiercely loyal communities they have been a part of for generations.

Mom and pop restaurants were once ubiquitous across the United States. Whether you lived in a big city like Minneapolis, a mid-sized city like Nashville, or a town in New Hampshire, there was a small restaurant where you could cook like home at an affordable price, while connecting with the community. .

When a beloved community restaurant closes, something important is lost. These are the places where Americans create memories, livelihoods and lifelong friendships. The meals themselves often reflect regional culinary traditions. And their owners are living their respective versions of the American Dream.

But the past two years have been difficult for independent restaurants. A perfect storm of economic forces – rising costs, supply chain challenges and labor shortages, to name a few – has peaked in more than 90,000 restaurants permanent closure at national scale.

But many survived. Now they are thriving again.

Al’s breakfast

Alison Kirwin owns and operates Al’s Breakfast, located in the Dinkytown neighborhood of southeast Minneapolis. Although Al’s may be short for Alison, the restaurant is named after Al Bergstrom, who bought it from a man named Bill in 1950. Bill’s Diner was later renamed Al’s Breakfast.

Al’s Breakfast owner Alison Kirwin pours coffee for a customer. (Courtesy of Al’s Breakfast)

“When I was young, my uncles called me Big Al,” Kirwin said. “They were joking, of course. I was the smallest of all my cousins.

A dancer who graduated from the University of Minnesota, Kirwin started working at Al’s as a server in 1996. Then, in 2006, she bought a half share of the restaurant. In 2020, she buys back the other half-share, making it her full owner.

“When I started working there as a waiter in the 90s, it fit my schedule as a dancer who traveled a lot,” she said. “Then I started thinking I’d like to buy the restaurant.”

Kirwin bought Al’s because it was a special institution in Minneapolis. It’s been in business since Bergstrom bought it in 1950. Like many mom and pop restaurants in the United States, the past two years have been tough for Kirwin and company. They have been closed for 16 months, bringing them dangerously close to closing.

“But the community stepped up,” Kirwin said. “The regulars bought us takeaways, they gave money. We wouldn’t be here without this amazing community.

As with many diners, Al’s serves a multicultural and multigenerational clientele. Young couples bring their children. Then, over the years, their children bring their children, and the cycle continues.

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The facade of Al’s Breakfast, said to be the tightest restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Courtesy of Al’s Breakfast)

“It’s a tradition that’s been passed down,” Kirwin said.

In his restaurant, people from radically different worlds sit side by side and talk about everything in the world over a cup – or a pot – of coffee.

“We only have seats at the counter,” she said. “If you want to be left alone, you have it. But most people come to connect with their neighbors.

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A plate of Al’s famous Wally Blues, buttermilk pancakes with walnuts and blueberries. (Courtesy of Al’s Breakfast)

Al’s won a James Beard Foundation Award in the category “America’s Classics Restaurants” in 2004.

“What sets us apart is that our food is homemade,” Kirwin said. “Our blueberry and walnut pancakes are famous. And our best-selling, The José, comes with hand-shredded hash browns, homemade salsa, poached eggs and cheddar cheese.

Kirwin said many diners are quietly disappearing, “which is sad.”

“The guests do a very good job of keeping regional culinary traditions alive. When you look at fast food or restaurant chains, you can get the same things no matter where you are in the country,” she said.

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The 14-seat counter, with Will Harris grilling in the background, at Al’s Breakfast. (Courtesy of Al’s Breakfast)

When asked if she had any new ideas for making more money, Kirwin replied that she actually hoped things would stay the same.

“We have a successful formula,” she said. “We want it to stay that way.”

The Littleton Restaurant

The Willifords—Patti and Chris—are co-owners of littleton’s restaurant, in Littleton, New Hampshire. Chris Williford ran the joint for five years before he and Patti bought it 20 years ago. The Willifords had both worked in restaurants for much of their adult lives.

“The first five, 10 years were difficult,” said Patti Williford. “But we survived the 2008 recession. We thought we were doing pretty well. Then the pandemic arrived. »

The state closed restaurants for three months. Then, when the Willifords reopened in November 2020, business was too slow to stay open.

“We were running at a loss,” said Patti Williford.

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Historic images of Littleton Diner, which opened in 1930. (Courtesy of Littleton Diner)

So they closed their doors until March 2021. As some restaurants closed permanently, the Willifords and their staff would meet people at the grocery store, or while walking down Main Street, and they would ask when the restaurant would be open again. open .

“They really missed it,” said Patti Williford. “It’s not a fast food chain. Our clients are like family. They have their favorite servers. Most of us are on a first name basis. If you’re elderly and we haven’t seen you in a while, we’ll call you to see what’s going on.

When they finally reopened on March 15, 2021, they were overwhelmed by the response: the restaurant was packed.

“All of our employees have come back to work with us,” Patti Williford said. “It was like everyone had gone home. We hoped for a miracle, but we did not expect it. It was amazing.

Not bad for a quick dinner in a New England village that straddles the Vermont-New Hampshire border.

Traditional New England staples are alive and well at Littleton Diner. The Yankee comes with two eggs, baked beans, potatoes, and toast. But, the menu adds, you can add a slice of apple pie topped with melted cheddar cheese. It will cost you $8.99. Top o’ the Mornin’ offers the Willifords’ homemade corned beef hash, which takes two days to make, with two eggs and toast. The damage? $9.99. And, like most places in the Vermont-New Hampshire area, maple syrup is served at no extra charge with breakfast. Once you’ve had that, that corn syrup stuff won’t do the trick.

Unlike Al’s Breakfast, the Littleton Diner is open for dinner. You can get a roast turkey dinner or beans and franks with brown bread on the side.

It didn’t stop there. High season tends to run from June until the end of peak foliage season, sometimes October. But Patti Williford said they’ve been busy non-stop ever since.

“We just had our most successful year ever,” she said. “We are lucky to have such loyal and reliable staff. Some of them have been in the restaurant longer than us.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Another James Beard Award winner, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, located in Nashville, is owned and operated by the Arnold family. Kahlil Arnold, who works alongside his mother, Rose, works seven days a week to bring Nashvillians the best “meat and three” in the South.

“It’s one meat and three sides,” Kahlil Arnold said. “It’s a Southern tradition.”

The queue outside Arnold’s Country Kitchen. (Courtesy of Arnold’s Country Kitchen)

Jack Arnold, her father and first owner of the restaurant, grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he learned to cook from an early age. Born in 1937, his childhood was marked by the Great Depression, followed by the boom of war. He started working at the age of 11 and never stopped.

“He taught us that everything has a purpose,” Kahlil Arnold said.

Namely: Bacon grease left over from other dishes is used to make their famous fried chicken, as well as their turnip greens.

“Everything we make is great,” Arnold said, “but our fried chicken is something else.”

One meat and three, a Southern tradition, at Arnold’s. (Courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp)

While country music stars Dolly Parton and Dierks Bentley are known to frequent Arnold’s Country Kitchen — and the Arnolds are proud of it — Arnold said he wouldn’t be here without the Nashvillians.

“We love our community,” he said. “Everyone is good for everyone. Everyone helps each other. »

This is how they survived the pandemic.

“It brought us to our knees,” Arnold said. “We were closed for a while, then we were only open for takeout. But we got away with it. »

A selection of pies at Arnold’s Country Kitchen. (Courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp)

To do this, Arnold and his company got creative. They extended their opening hours and have since been open for dinner. They decided to open on Sunday. And they added a bar to generate more revenue.

“When times get tough,” Arnold said, “you have to get creative. And you have to have a community to support your efforts.

It’s hard work, running a family restaurant. Arnold said the new changes made him feel like he was opening five restaurants at once, but the joys outweighed the challenges, so it was worth it.

“Many of our clients have watched me grow from a child to an adult,” Arnold said. “And I also saw their children grow up.”

David Dudley


David Dudley is a journalist, educator, and playwright based in southern Utah. Email him at [email protected]

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