Orwell’s only diner closes
ORWELL — The breakfast crowd at Pam’s Country Kitchen in Orwell found the pancakes to have a slightly bittersweet taste on Monday morning.
No, Pam LaDuc’s batter and the Vermont maple syrup were, as usual, on point.
It’s just that the regular customers — some of whom have been eating at the folksy diner on Main Street three or four times a week for more than a decade — knew that their go-to hub for good grub and gossip would be closing its doors for good after the last of Monday’s java had been drained from the pot.
Those customers turned out in force on both Sunday evening and Monday morning to wish LaDuc well — and help her search for a new location in which to re-open what was Orwell’s only sit-down diner. The eatery’s 18-year run at 550 Main St. is coming to a close in the wake of the landlord’s decision not to renew Pam’s lease, triggering a Sept. 5 move-out date.
“It makes me feel good (to see the regulars) today, but it’s sad to know I won’t be able to serve them,” LaDuc said as she topped off coffee cups and flipped flapjacks on the flattop grill.
LaDuc acquired the diner in January of 2013 from Dave Kent, who had opened it 16 years prior as “Hawk’s Country Kitchen.” LaDuc had worked for Kent for 12 years, so she was very familiar with the operation and its local customer base when she took it over.
“It has been successful,” LaDuc recalled.
As is the case for many small enterprises in Vermont, there were seasonal ups and downs for Pam’s Country Kitchen. Business was good from March through November, with the usual lull during the winter and mud season. But LaDuc experienced an additional financial setback that had nothing to do with the calendar — her husband, Bob, became seriously ill in March of 2013, just three months after she bought the business. This, she said, required her to spend more hours at home taking care of her spouse and thus increased her payroll costs to keep the Country Kitchen running. At the same time, her husband wasn’t drawing a paycheck until he finally regained his health five months later.
“That made it tough,” LaDuc said of the family’s strained finances. “There were some hard times when we couldn’t pay rent.”
As a result, LaDuc’s track record with her landlord featured some rough spots, though she stressed she is now no longer in arrears and recently offered to pay rent installments in advance. LaDuc’s supporters collected more than 125 signatures on a petition requesting that landlords Christine and Harold Pouliot allow the diner to remain open, according to Bob Martin, part of a group of local armed services veterans who have gathered for breakfast at Pam’s on most weekdays. Tuesday breakfasts have drawn as many as 20 veterans and their spouses.
A sign on the wall next to the group’s usual table reads, “Veterans’ parking — reserved for those who served.”
“It’s a community facility and a good one, and there really isn’t another one for 12 or 13 miles,” Martin said as he and the five fellow veterans at his table nodded in agreement.
Landlord Christine Pouliot declined to comment on the Pam’s Country Kitchen lease, and said she has not yet finalized an agreement for future rental of the space. The diner was but one tenant in a building that includes the Orwell Post Office, the Abundant Life Community Church, and Christine’s Hairstyling, operated by Pouliot.
Pouliot did offer the following comment for the record:
“I would like to wish Pam the best in her future endeavors.”
Country Kitchen regulars hope Pam LaDuc’s future endeavors include a new diner in Orwell, and they are pulling out all the stops to try and make that happen.
PAM LADUC VISITS with a customer in her restaurant in Orwell Monday morning. The restaurant officially closed Sunday night but opened for breakfast for long-time customers Monday morning.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Jim Oldenburg said he’s speaking with an Orwell landowner who he hopes will collaborate with LaDuc in building a new diner in the village.
“The town needs this,” said Oldenburg, a U.S. Army veteran, Orwell resident and regular at the diner since 2000.
LaDuc also recently received an offer to transplant the diner into a portion of a large Orwell village home. She has received offers from people willing to move her equipment and perform carpentry work on any new spot she might land.
She’s appreciated the offers, but also stressed, “I am not looking for any handouts. I will try my hardest to get this back up and running.”
As an Orwell resident, she’d like to keep the business in Orwell. And that would be just fine with Granville Sherman, one of five local World War II veterans.
Sherman, 96, was among those getting a final breakfast fix at the Country Kitchen on Monday morning.
“I come here a couple of times a week — whenever the boss doesn’t feel like cooking,” Sherman said with a smile, referring to his wife.
He said he was very disappointed to hear that Pam’s would be closing, as it has been a dependable spot for food and conversation.
“It’s been the only place,” he said.
Emboldened by an illustrious military career that included three years of World War II infantry duty on the battlefields of Italy, France and Africa, Sherman took another playful shot at “the boss”:
“I guess I’ll have to put up with my wife’s cooking.”
Peter Young of Orwell is a retired first sergeant with the Vermont Army National Guard. He, too, has been a regular at Pam’s, where veterans have been able to talk about everything ranging from current affairs to sports.
“Who’s going to keep this country going if we don’t have these morning discussions?” he said with a chuckle.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].