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.”