Dish: Pamela's is known for Pam, Gail and breakfast



Breakfast all day.

Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Gail Klingensmith, left, and Pam Cohen, outside their Lincoln P&G Diner in Millvale. The two now have five diners with various themes. They plan to add the Pamela's name to the Millvale diner, which is part of the Lincoln Pharmacy that was started by Ms. Cohen's grandfather in 1928.
Click photo for larger image.

My favorite meal.

Home fries, omelets, hotcakes and waffles.

These are the foundations of Pamela's restaurants, all five of them. One each in Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and the Strip District. A nickel says you can't name the fifth location.

Owners Pamela Cohen and Gail Klingensmith love to tell their story, which they do in unison, interrupting each other and stepping on each other's lines.

Pam: "We were both teachers in our 20s."

Gail: "And we were roommates, playing in the same league on the amateur golf circuit. It was 1979."

Pam: "My dad, Stan, ran the our family's Lincoln Pharmacy, over in Millvale, which my grandfather founded in 1928. As a sideline, Dad ran a 15-cent hamburger restaurant in Squirrel Hill, 'Poppa Joe's.' When he wanted out of the burger business, Gail and I decided to take it over."

Gail: "With no experience, of course."

They bought the business and switched to a breakfast menu. To avoid customer confusion, they wanted to change the name at the same time, but it was a big expense. They learned that the legal fees would be much lower if owners used their given names.

No contest. Since it was Pam's family's store, they decided to call it Pamela's.

For opening day they bought a dozen plates. "Customers stood in line outside the door, while we were inside crying because nobody could eat until those 12 plates were washed and dried," Gail remembers.

"We pooled the money we made on the first day, went to a sale at Pottery Outlet in Murrysville and bought more plates. Cups, we had. Back then, the breakfast special -- eggs, home fries, toast and coffee -- went for 99 cents. Bacon was 10 cents extra."

That was in 1980. For the next three years, Pam worked the eatery, taking her pay from tips. Gail continued teaching, coming in after school and working weekends. Pamela's Shadyside opened in 1983, and Pamela's Oakland followed in 1986. In 1999, they took over the lunch counter in the back of the Lincoln Pharmacy, launching it as the P&G Diner. In early June 2004, Pamela's in the Strip District opened.

(Now they're all named "Pamela's P&G Diner" except Millvale, to which they plan to add the "Pamela's" name, since most people call it that anyway.)

Pamela's restaurants have no logo, no branding, and the menu is always a work in process. The interiors have '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s themes, but the Squirrel Hill store is "whatever the staff wants to put up." Over the years the menu, designed by an employee, has evolved, but a few things always stay the same: The lacy-edged pancakes must cover the plate, and both ends of an omelet must touch the rim of the plate.

"The Strip was a huge hit, a great location with a hot pink and aqua interior, Fiesta ware plates and vintage photos plastered on the walls," recalls Gail.

It was only two months old and they were crazy-busy running five locations. Then hit Hurricane Ivan, the strongest hurricane of the 2004 season, which blew in to Pittsburgh in September, with heavy rain and strong winds.

The resulting flooding in Millvale ruined everybody. The Lincoln Pharmacy and the P&G Diner were totaled.

Gail was in the pharmacy in Millvale that day. "It was about 2 in the afternoon," she remembers. "I watched the water rushing down the street. I saw ice-makers from the beer distributor and furniture from houses floating by. ...

"It took five months to gut, clean up and de-gook the store," she continued. "On the upside, we discovered the original floor, added about 60 seats and restored to its 1930s glory. We didn't get one penny, not one, of federal money."

Pam's younger sister, Jennifer Cohen, now owns the store. She just won the Person of the Year award from the Philanthropic Professionals of Western Pennsylvania. The youngest sister, Rise, also works at the pharmacy.

Grandma would be right at home in the time-warp of the drugstore, knick-knack shop and diner. You can weigh yourself for a penny, pick out Betty Boop cards and kids' toys and buy a box of Band-Aids. The soda fountain makes old-fashioned malts, root beer floats and phosphates. You can get a tin roof sundae or banana split, or you can have breakfast any time of day.

Two women, five restaurants, 15,000 eggs a week. How do they do it?

Gail: "I'm the brains. She's the brawn."

Pam: "We don't have set assignments, but we have patterns. We're always somewhere by 8:30 a.m. Then we put out fires."

Gail: "Pam takes what she wants. I get the leftovers."

Pam: "Not true! We talk on the phone 100 times a day, and we have drive-by meetings."

Gail: "I have an office the size of a small closet in Oakland."

Pam: "A chain? Never. We are a two-person 'anti-chain' gang."

Gail: "Our secret is never to be in the same restaurant at the same time."

After a 26-year partnership, Pam and Gail are still pals and still laughing.

When they go out to eat, they are treated like celebrities. When Pam goes to Tessaro's or Six Penn or Gail drops into Soba or Rico's, hands shoot up all over the place and people start waving, "Hi, Pam," "Hey, Gail."

Next time you see Pam in her aqua-and-white Thunderbird convertible, you can give her a wave, too.


BREAKFAST COOKIES

You have permission to eat these cookies for breakfast. All the ingredients are things that you might eat for breakfast, anyway. If you eat a couple of these, guzzle a glass of juice and take a coffee-to-go, you'll be in great shape until lunch. You might take an extra couple to work or school to munch on during a break.

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup regular oats, uncooked
  • 1 cup Grape-Nuts or a crunchy flake cereal if Grape-Nuts are too crunchy for your taste
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter (optional, but delicious)
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon wheat germ
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon oat bran
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk powder
  • 1 cup currants or raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg, then the oil and vanilla. Stir in the remaining ingredients.

Form the dough into balls about the size of a walnut. Place on ungreased cookie sheets and flatten with a fork.

Bake for 12 to 18 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie dough balls. Check the bottoms. Because the dough is very brown to begin with, you must watch this closely.

Remove from the pan and cool on racks. Makes about 5 1/2 dozen.

-- "Morning Food" by Margaret S. Fox with John Bear


Marlene Parrish can be reached at 412-481-1620 or mparrish@post-gazette.com .




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