Archive for the 'The Day to Day Grind' Category

Young, Carefree, and Getting Away With It

These days, I am a bit of a worry wart when it comes to travel. I want to make sure that everything is all set before we go, and I worry over small details to the point that it drives my wife crazy. I wasn’t always that way, however. There was a time in my life when I ignored silly little things like details, planning, and responsibility, and that time was called college. A perfect example of this was the time I was supposed to fly to Missouri to attend a seminar for my national fraternity.

First, a bit about my fraternity – when I was in school, fraternities were not recognized by UMass-Lowell, and my fraternity in particular had started up on campus just a couple of years earlier. So, instead of a grand, old beautiful house full of a bunch of jocks named Todd, we had a dirty, rat-infested house with a mishmash of guys who wouldn’t be cast as frat guys in any movie (it’s funny how you can feel nostalgic about a place when you had to wear flip flops in your own shower). I was entering what I think was my third junior year when I was elected president of the local crew.
The fraternity’s national office puts on an event called President’s Academy every year to help people figure out how to go about being president. It was important that I go (especially since my local group was considered a “colony” at that point in time and we were trying to make a good impression so that the national office would make us a “chapter” or permanent member).

In the morning in question, I woke with a start. I had a hazy memory that there was something important to be done. After my eyes focused, I remembered that I had been meaning to check the fraternity’s post office box to retrieve the plane tickets that had been sent by the national office. Those tickets, which had been languishing in that post office box for some time, would remind me which day I was to fly to Missouri. A responsible person might have called or otherwise checked the dates, but I didn’t get around to it (I’m sure I was very busy with important stuff).
At the post office, I saw that the tickets were for a flight leaving Boston that morning – in about 2 hours. There was no time to stop and panic, so I panicked while driving back to the house, and while throwing various clothing items (clean and otherwise) into a bag. During this process, I realized that I needed 2 things – money (I had almost none), and a sport coat (it was the one thing we were supposed to bring with us, and I didn’t have one – nor had I made arrangements to get one).

I ran upstairs and banged on the bedroom door of my friend Kevin, waking him up. I explained my predicament and begged the use of a sport coat (I was much thinner then, so he was a likely match). He explained that he didn’t own a sport coat, but offered me a suit coat. I took it. It would look ridiculous with my non-matching dress pants, but there wasn’t time to worry about it. I then asked him very casually about a short term loan of a hundred or so dollars, but Kevin (like me) was perpetually broke, so that was a dead end.

There was now about an hour until my flight was going to leave Boston.

I called Joe. Joe worked regularly after school and was really good about saving his money. His good sense should probably have prevented him from lending money to someone like me, but he was a fraternity brother and a friend. When I explained the problem, and my time constraint, he agreed to swing by a bank machine and come over with the dough. Lucky for me, he hustled, because I had 45 minutes left to drive from Lowell to Boston and get on a plane.

These days, what with the security and all, that sort of thing isn’t even possible. And even back in the mid-90’s, in the days before the Big Dig, the traffic should have prevented such an accomplishment. But somehow on that day I was able to powerfully weave my Nissan Sentra (purchased for $1) up Route 495, down Route 93, and to the airport. I leapt out at the terminal (a friend had volunteered to drive my car home), and rushed to the gate. I got onto the plane just as the doors were closing, popped my bag in the overhead compartment, and flew to Missouri (where I rode a mechanical bull for the first and last time).

There is no question that the entire experience would make my head explode today.

Postscripts: I paid Joe back. Also, I did look like an idiot in my non-matching suit coat/dress pants, but no one really cared.

The Day to Day Grind Tim 12 Apr 2013 No Comments

Small Business Done Right

Pam Eaton opened Pam’s Place, located at 382 Water Street in Clinton, six and a half years ago and, despite an economy that could best be described as “lousy,” her business has managed to succeed. It’s inspiring to see a little shop bloom, so I decided to interview Pam to find out more about her background and what it takes to make a small business work these days.

First, some background: Pam is from Clinton – she grew up in the section of town known as “The Acre” and stayed in town to raise her family. Prior to Pam’s Place, she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts for 15 years, and before that had a restaurant called The Sugar Bowl in Clinton. Pam’s Place is a hybrid of the two previous businesses – serving coffee, made to order breakfast sandwiches, and 1 pound coffee rolls in the morning and fresh roasted turkey, chicken, sandwiches, and special soups for lunch (in my opinion, they have the best clam chowder in the area – it’s available on Fridays). Pam’s Place is also a destination for people who want lottery, cigarettes, trash stickers, newspapers, milk, trash stickers, and other convenience items.

What were things like when you first opened?

“It was really slow the first year, especially when compared to the fast pace I was used to at Dunkin’ Donuts. People had seen businesses come and go [in this building], so I don’t think they wanted to come in and see the new business and watch it fail. But, little by little it rolled and rolled and got bigger. I call it my little snowman, although I’m still only at the middle part of the snowman – I still have to get the head on it.”

How important was your family in helping you to get started?

“[I’ve had] a lot of family help. When we came in here it was a mess – it was a disaster – but I had a vision, and [my]family came and helped me do [the store] over.

“The hardest part of running a small business is when someone in the family takes ill. You’re taking care of family and running the business, so if something happens you have to close. For example, in the beginning my Dad was going to run the business with me, and then he took ill. But the family fills in and has been a big help.”

And if you close for something like that, people may get out of the habit of coming to your store?

“You have to be here for them. [That’s why] I’m adamant I open every morning at about 10 of 5. If [a customer] came here at 5 o’clock and I wasn’t open – I understand that frustration.

“You worry. If you have the same customer for 2-3 years and then they leave you wonder, ‘What did I do?’ Talking to many business owners, it’s a common worry – ‘What’d I say? I didn’t mean to say it. What’d I do?’”

Speaking of getting overwhelmed, how do you deal with the constant grind of the day to day?

“Now that I hired more people, I can finally take a day off, so that’s when I take a day off and cut back.”

“Being a small business, you’re spending 60-70 hours a week at work so you don’t have time for other things. You’re just spent, but you have to have a family life, too, especially [my] 4 grandchildren. That’s where I set my priorities as far as my time.

“But, along with running a business, I’m a firm believer in vacations and time. I put in 3-4 years of not [taking time off], but now we have enough staff that we can probably stay open in July. In order to get a vacation, I have to plan out the whole week. I’m already planning for July – what I need to do to get ready.

Wow, you’re planning for July already?

“Some people don’t understand that owning your own business is constant planning. Like keeping change in your register – you’ve got to be constantly on that. All of those little things add up to a snowball – lottery for example. Lottery is definitely worth the time, and it’s not a whole lot of paperwork. It’s probably 45 minutes for a week’s worth of lottery, and I pluck away at that. Saturday mornings are slow in here and I get a lot of that kind of stuff done, but that’s all in planning, too. You can’t backlog yourself because the next thing you know you have a pile this big of things to do. [That’s why] if I get overwhelmed, I make a list to help me remember. In this business you can’t forget. If I told you that tomorrow I was going to have pot roast, I have to have it.”

It’s like I’ve always told my sons – ‘Delete it from your mind, get it done. Don’t procrastinate, get it done.’
“Also, being in this business, you have to know how to make just enough but not too much because you have to have the rotation. There isn’t a lot of profit on individual thing, so every little thing adds up. It takes a lot of 30 cents here and 30 cents there to pay people.”

When you were first getting started, what brought people in first and what helped you to grow?

“The lunch crowd grew first. Then the lottery drew people in and they saw what else we have. Lottery, coffee – everyone has their thing. We didn’t have cigarettes when I came here, and I knew nothing about cigarettes. With bringing in cigarettes, I had to spend a substantial amount of money to stock them, and then [I had to] learn them and the prices.”

But it’s all about being a convenient destination for people.

“Exactly.”

Changing gears a little, I find that there’s a very friendly atmosphere here – do you think that’s an important part of the business?

“It is important. I have a lot of laughs. If I come in and I’m having a bad day, I get five customers into it and I’m not [having a bad day] any more. If I [worked at] a factory and worked on a machine, all I would do is sit there and brood, but here I’m busy having different conversations and talking to people so I just forget all about what’s bothering me.

“That was one of the biggest things I noticed [about working here]. It’s more head on and I have more time – I see a lot more and hear a lot more. I never realized how busy I was making a living for other people, rather than paying attention to life.

“Someone would tell me that her father was sick and that translated to me as ‘Great, you’re going to be out.’ I lost me. Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what am I doing? She said her father was sick.’ That is one of the reasons that I left – I got so wrapped up in the buck, and I had so many people working under me that I lost touch with their feelings.”

Do you have any funny stories about customers in the shop?

This one time a little boy came in with his mother around Christmastime. I asked him if he was being a good boy for Santa, and he said, “Yes, but Mommy says I have to stop saying %^$#@ ^@#.” The color just drained right out of his mother’s face.

What’s next for Pam’s Place?

“I change the menu board every year with different grinders and things like that. And wherever we go on vacation or wherever anyone in my family goes, they’ll bring me a menu and I’ll pick a sandwich out of it for my special board. I’m always trying to think of different things to add, but I have to bring in stuff that’s quick – I can’t have something that takes ten minutes to make.

“Now I’m talking to a company about doing bubble tea and smoothies, so we’ll see about that.”

Last question – if you get here before 5 in the morning, what in the heck time do you get up?

“I get up at 3:30 AM every day. I’ve been getting up at that time for 25 years now, and sure, I get sick of it, but there’s a lot of prep work to be done.”

The Day to Day Grind Tim 08 Apr 2013 No Comments

Three Mailmen and an Eagle

This is a story about three mailmen, an Eagle, and an incredible coincidence.

Mike Kennedy has been delivering mail in the Town of Winchendon for 13 years. It seems to be a bit of a family business, as Mike’s father, Rich Kennedy, has been carrying mail on the streets of Clinton for 28 years.

There is a gentleman who lives on Mike’s route named Ed Cross. Ed goes by the nickname “The Eagle,” and is a well-known figure in Winchendon. His defining visible characteristics are an extraordinarily long, bushy white beard, long white hair, and thick glasses. As Mike says, “If you ask anyone in Winchendon if they know The Eagle, they will know who you mean. Even if they don’t know him personally they will have seen him around town.” Over the years, Mike and The Eagle have gotten to be pretty friendly, and as it happens, The Eagle has a nephew, Garrett, who is also a mail carrier in Winchendon. I’ll let Mike take it from here:

“So, one day Garrett and I were talking, and he told me that he has a picture, taken in Vietnam, that shows The Eagle clean-shaven. It’s hard to imagine The Eagle without his beard and long hair, so I told him I wanted to see it, but then we sort of forgot about it.

“After a few weeks, Garrett came into work and said, ‘I’ve got it!’ and he handed me this old picture. ‘The Eagle is the one on the left with the glasses,’ he said. I looked at the picture and saw that it was of three soldiers and that it was probably taken in Vietnam. The one on the left was the Eagle – it was strange to see him as a younger man, clean shaven and with dark hair. I didn’t recognize the soldier on the right, but when I looked at the soldier in the middle I was surprised to see that it was my father.”

Looking at the picture now, it is hard not to see that it is clearly a shirtless young Rich Kennedy sitting in the middle. The three men appear to be enjoying cocktails, and Rich is either flashing a peace sign or giving rabbit ears to the man on the right – either of which is believable if you know Rich Kennedy. He’s a gregarious guy who is well-liked by the people on his route. He’s quick to smile and always seems to have a quip or funny story to tell.

But, getting back to the story, what happened when Mike tried to tell Garrett that it was his father in the picture? “He didn’t believe me. No one at work believed me. At first I thought that maybe Garrett knew it was my dad when he brought in the picture, but he didn’t. Everyone thought I was fooling around.”

It’s understandable that people would be skeptical. What are the chances, after all, that this 40+ year-old picture – taken half a world away – that Garrett brought to the Winchendon, MA post office specifically to show to Mike would have Mike’s father in it? My math doesn’t go up that high.

Eventually, they showed the picture to The Eagle, and he confirmed that the man in the middle was “Mr. Kennedy.” That silenced the skeptics, and Mike had a copy of the picture made for his dad.

Rich Kennedy graduated from Clinton High School in 1966 and still lives in the town with his wife, Judy. He was drafted into the Army in 1969, and when asked about the picture he said that it was probably taken around October, 1969 in Can Tho, where he served as a communications specialist (The name of the third man in the picture is not known for certain, but his last name may have been Arsenault). Rich was later attached to an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) unit and returned home in 1970.
How does seeing the picture make Rich feel?

“First of all, it’s hard to believe that it was taken 42 years ago. It brings me back to a time where a bunch of us were young and trying to adapt to make the best of the situation. I met some really good people I never would have known otherwise, and I just think about where they are and hope they are doing well.”

Rich plans to contact The Eagle soon so that they can catch up.

The Day to Day Grind Tim 08 Apr 2013 No Comments

« Previous PageNext Page »