Dallas restaurateur Al Biernat diagnosed with ALS and says, ‘I want people to know’

Al Biernat, the 68-year-old Dallas restaurateur who rarely forgot a customer’s name in nearly 50 years at Al Biernat’s and The Palm, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He would love to chat with Al Biernat’s customers like he did for so many years, he tells The Dallas Morning News in exclusive interviews. “But,” he said, “they wouldn’t be able to understand me.”

Biernat’s speech is slurred and he struggles to swallow, both symptoms of his neurodegenerative disease. During some of his interviews with The News, it was easier for him to communicate with emailed letters.

Al Biernat, right, owner of Al Biernat's, has worked with his nephew Brad Fuller since the...
Al Biernat, right, owner of Al Biernat’s, has worked with his nephew Brad Fuller since the steakhouse opened more than 25 years ago on Oak Lawn Avenue in Dallas. (Carly Geraci / Staff Photographer)

Biernat has bulbar-onset ALS, which attacks the face and the neck first. Bulbar-onset ALS often moves faster than other forms of ALS, according to research from the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a nonprofit in Massachusetts. Doctors at UT Southwestern told Biernat the life expectancy is about three years from when his symptoms began in May 2023.

In Biernat’s sunny way, he’s grateful for his Dallas doctors’ knowledge about ALS. He’s hopeful. He said about his ever-growing circle of steakhouse customers, often called Friends of Al, “I want people to know.”

The news will help customers understand why he isn’t regularly in the restaurant, offering his signature “nice to see you” to each guest.

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In an interview with The News, Biernat confirmed he’s not selling Al Biernat’s. He trusts director of operations Brad Fuller, his nephew, to run it.

Fuller helped open Al Biernat’s on Dallas’ Oak Lawn Avenue more than 25 years ago, in 1998, and has been in management ever since. The family owns a second Al Biernat’s steakhouse in Far North Dallas, and Fuller, 48, is the director of operations for both restaurants.

Biernat’s wife of 44 years, Jeannie Biernat, is Al’s closest confidant and stand-in interpreter. His speech difficulties seem especially unfair for such a warm, welcoming man, his colleagues said.

“You came into his place once, and if he met you, he would remember what would make you happy,” said Bob Sambol, of Bob’s Steak & Chop House. “That’s what great restaurateurs do.”

Both Sambol and Javier Gutierrez, owner of Javier’s Gourmet Mexicano, met Biernat at The Palm. The three shared mutual respect and healthy competition, each running high-end, beef-centric restaurants. Even in a crowded steakhouse market like Dallas, Al Biernat’s thrived. Sambol said Biernat is the best restaurant operator in the city.

Biernat’s reputation is as a steady, servant leader who can read a room. The 6-foot-1 restaurateur, always wearing a sharp suit, has the right words to comfort customers during hard times and make them feel like a million bucks during a celebration.

“A guy like Al never goes out of style,” Sambol said.

‘We became a family’

Forrest Peterson, a career server who has worked at Al Biernat’s for 25 years, remembers meeting its owner for the first time. Biernat was inside his not-yet-opened steakhouse on Oak Lawn Avenue.

 Al Biernat, center, is pictured here in 2010 as his company anticipated the onslaught of...
Al Biernat, center, is pictured here in 2010 as his company anticipated the onslaught of customers that would visit Dallas for the 2011 Super Bowl.

“There was this guy sweating and sweeping the floor, all by himself,” Peterson said. “He said, ‘Hi, I’m Al Biernat.’ And I said, ‘Wait, your name is on the building.’”

Biernat hired Peterson. Then he almost fired him.

“He said, ‘Forrest, I don’t think it’s going to work out for you here.’” It was during the first few months of business at Al Biernat’s that Peterson realized he’d been watching the other servers make big money and get more tables while he stood in the corner, waiting for someone to tell him what to do.

“I decided, let me grab a pitcher of water, start bussing tables, start hustling,” Peterson said.

That’s what Al would do.

Peterson saved his job, and over the next two decades, Biernat became a mentor.

“We became a family,” Peterson said. He emphasized Biernat’s Christian values and his breath-of-fresh-air attitude.

“The way he treats people is going to be a legacy,” Peterson said.

Fuller has looked up to his uncle since he started working for him in his 20s and said Biernat taught him simple, genuine gestures. Pay attention to the details, Fuller learned.

Make the room fun.

Be kind, be a teacher, be a problem-solver.

Get up from your seat.

Make eye contact.

Always say thank you.

“Al has a special way of making everyone think they are the most important person in the room,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he is prepared to run the restaurant just like his uncle would, as a celebratory place that feeds four generations of customers.

“We just celebrated our 25th anniversary, and I pray to God that there are 25 more,” Fuller said.

What’s next for Al Biernat

Biernat has chosen not to get a tracheotomy, a surgery that could make it easier to breathe as his ALS progresses.

He knows his muscles will eventually weaken and he’ll lose more control of his jaw, throat and tongue. For now, he can attend meetings at the restaurant and run errands — like going to the grocery store — without issue.

Those who strike up a conversation with Biernat will notice slurred speech. He also has uncontrolled spells of laughter or crying, more symptoms of bulbar-onset ALS.

Biernat’s daughter Angelica Saylor is gathering messages, stories and photos from friends and customers. She plans to share them with her dad when he needs encouragement. They’re being collected at a fitting email address: FriendofAl@albiernats.com. Cards can be sent to 4217 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas, TX, 75219, c/o Al Biernat’s Personal.

Jeannie Biernat said she is armed with new knowledge about what she calls a “terrible, cruel disease.” Al wrote in a letter:

“I have been greatly blessed with so many wonderful people in my life that it makes my future much easier to cope with.”

For more food news, follow Sarah Blaskovich on X (formerly Twitter) at @sblaskovich.

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