Editor’s note: Strength in Flexibility is an ongoing series highlighting changes local businesses are making to adapt to life during the coronavirus pandemic.
When COVID-19 began shuttering businesses, gyms and restaurants were among the first affected.
For Pammie’s Sammies, the shutdown was sudden. The sandwich shop’s main location has been at the Dr. P. Phillips YMCA for a couple of years, so the business fell under both categories.
Owner Pam Thomas said she and her team had to temporarily shut down the Dr. Phillips location with hardly any warning.
“We were really up in the air at the YMCA as to when they were going to close,” Thomas said. “One day, we were open, and the next we had to close. The week of (March 16), I started going, ‘OK, I have to start making plans.’ … I never received any kind of a notice — I just had to watch. As soon as I got a really good sense that we were going to have to close, that’s when I sat everybody down. I didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs — they’re all real special to me.”
Luckily, Thomas had been preparing to open a second location in downtown Winter Garden. Her original plan was to hold a ribbon cutting and grand opening on May 1.
“The whole thing is that — and I’ve always been really good at reinventing myself — this time has been the hardest because … when the YMCA closed, I had no choice,” Thomas said. “It was either close down and send my team home, or I sat them down and said, ‘We can either shut down and y’all can go home and draw unemployment — if you can get it — or I’ll give everybody a raise.’ I chose Plan B, which became Plan A. I just said, ‘You know, if y’all are going to keep getting paid, we’ve got to get busy.’ And they did, and they did a great job.”
The team got right to work, and the new Pammie’s Sammies Winter Garden location was up and running in just four days. Thomas already had all licenses in place, and the shop even has a walk-up window to serve customers.
Although the dining room is not operating as such, Pammie’s Sammies is open for to-go orders. Those interested can order online or call in. Thomas also took a unique approach to operating a restaurant during the pandemic — she created a “convenience corner” in the store, where people can get basic grocery items.
“It’s been crazytown,” Thomas said. “I never in a million years would’ve dreamed I’d be a grocer. It’s a completely different business. Sysco, my food provider … had put together this little plan about, ‘Hey, you know, why don’t you convert to a grocery store?’ I’m like, ‘How can I do that?’ She’s like, ‘Well, you’ve got carry out and takeout, you’ve got the licensing you need,’ and so that’s what we did. They made some suggestions as far as what we should carry and all that kind of stuff. They were very helpful.”
Items available for purchase include toilet paper, paper towels, cheese, deli meat, fish, steaks and vegetables. Plus, anyone who purchases at least $35 worth of groceries receives a bottle of wine.
Thomas said it’s been “the eternal soft opening,” but she also views it as a blessing. The extended period of time allows her team to test out the new location, try new recipes and focus on each day as it comes. Even when businesses are allowed to reopen, Thomas said the health of her staff and customers comes first, and Pammie’s Sammies will open fully when she feels it’s safe for everyone to do so.
“I’m really comfortable with the way I’ve been working and the way we’ve been providing service to people so as far as having the little convenience corner,” she said. “The community has been great. They’ve been very supportive, and a lot of people are going, ‘Oh, we’re so glad you’re here, can’t wait to come dine here!’ We’ve had a really good response as far as all that goes. And I love being there — it’s like being home.
“I feel like we’re doing a good job, and it’s not the way I’d want to operate all the time, but you can’t just stop — you’ve got to keep going,” she said. “Just keep moving forward. It’s not always going to be positive, but you’ll go to bed and say, ‘I’ll just wake up and try again in the morning.’ And then you do, and that sun just comes up. We’re just trying to do the right thing and be smart about it.”