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Mrs. P hangs up her apron

Tuesday, 21 November 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Mrs. P hangs up her apron
Loretta Packham, perhaps best known as Mrs. P, is bidding farewell to the restaurant business.   Photo by Shannon Robison

Mrs. P hangs up her apron

By Shannon Robison

On Nov. 28, 1995, Loretta Packham welcomed customers to Mrs. P’s Coffee Corner.

Next week, on Nov. 28, she will bid an official farewell to those she served for 22 years. It will be a difficult day because every customer has become a friend.

With a recent opportunity to sell the business, Loretta knew the time was right and went ahead with the sale.

Mrs. P’s was known for many things. It was a restaurant that served made-from-scratch meals, a social hub, a stepping stone for students entering the workforce, and a place where Loretta sometimes let her imagination run wild.

When the Pincher Creek Co-op closed the mall cafeteria in 1995, Mrs. P’s story began.

“I was the old mother hen of the whole building,” Loretta says with a laugh.
She had worked as a florist for about 15 years and at the Co-op for four more.

She says mall customers weren’t pleased with the closure and Dave Hoy, then manager of the Co-op, approached her about starting a new business.

Loretta had expressed interest in managing the cafeteria, but wasn’t keen on business ownership. It took considerable convincing to get her to take on this new role.

“I didn’t think it was something I could do, but agreed to try it for a month,” she says.

With a verbal agreement, a handshake and a good amount of trust, she opened the doors of what has been a much-loved business.

Starting out with a $150 float, regular appliances and a knack for good home cooking, she was pleasantly surprised to make money in the first month.

“Dave reassured me that he would always be there to help,” she says. “He was convinced that the business would grow and he believed in me.”

Strong support also came from her family.

Loretta says a cartful of groceries to get through a day of operation cost only $45 back then. This has changed, but her faithfulness to local shopping has not.

“I went in as an ordinary home cook,” she says, downplaying her talent in the kitchen.

Only the toaster was a commercial appliance. “It was all done like you’d do it at home,” Loretta adds.

People seeking home-cooked meals gravitated to her place at the mall.

“I used some recipes, but sometimes you get part way and just go with it and add your own bam!”

Loretta typically had one adult employee to help out. Chanzhu Lamb, Noreen Eagleson and the late Berniece Beemsterboer were all long-term employees of the restaurant.

Loretta’s daughters, Heather Rennette, Amanda Hutchinson and Nicole Packham all put in their fair share of time as well.

“I really enjoyed those years,” Loretta says.

In the kitchen the girls learned food safety and baking skills (with Mom always watching over their shoulders). They cleared tables, washed dishes and practised the fine art of customer service.

“They sometimes balked, but it all revolved around the kids,” Loretta says.

This included not only her own kids but a host of others. Teenagers, 17 of them in all, “had a chance to come out of their shells” by helping with cleaning, making simple dishes and interacting with customers.

These kids didn’t stop by and work for a while, they stayed on as employees through high school and until they were ready to go their own directions.

Staff turnover was never an issue and Loretta certainly didn’t mind knowing first-hand where her teenagers were.

She has maintained personal connections with most who got their start busing tables and washing dishes under her watch.

She’s proud that two of them, Adam Robinson and Riley Kay, continued on to make careers for themselves in the food business.

“I’m very impressed with all of them,” she says.

Loretta’s grandchildren have also been carrying on the tradition and are already old hands in the kitchen.

Many business award nominations came in over the years. She was thrilled with the one that led to a win and for each one in between, saying, “Knowing that someone thinks enough of you to make the nomination gives me a full heart.”

Mrs. P’s was open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, until about five years ago when Loretta found she couldn’t keep up with things and dropped the Saturdays.

Friday-night suppers were a tradition right from the start.

“There were lots of hard days and ups and downs over the years,” Loretta says. The people who thought of her restaurant as their own provided incentive to keep going.

“It was a place for seniors to meet, not a place for a business meetings,” she adds with a chuckle. “Everyone had their own table and chair.”

Mrs. P’s was a place where community spirit abounded and Loretta sometimes let her imagination run wild with seasonal themes and ideas.

Some will remember the gigantic igloo she built outside the restaurant back in 2004.

The wheels started turning when Loretta saw a bunch of unused plastic bins at the Co-op. Why not build a life-size igloo?

She assembled a crew of helpers and created a huge display in the mall corridor that attracted people from all over.

Over the next summer she built a gigantic gingerbread house.

Something fun was always happening in her corner of the mall — a display of stuffed bears at Christmas, classic cars and a ’50s theme for Father’s Day — her imagination seemed endless.

Mrs. P’s floats were often chosen winners in the annual parade as Loretta and her staff exercised their passion for decorating.

Though 10 days have passed since Loretta announced the sale of Mrs. P’s, emotions still run high and tears come easily.

“I’ll miss the whole lot of them, bless their souls,” she says. “Every one has their own twinkle and I’ll miss the whole scenario.”

Loretta invites her faithful customers and friends to stop in for one last friendly cup of coffee with her at the mall next Tuesday between 4 and 7 p.m.

In the spirit of moving on, the event will be held in the hallway entrance to the Co-op grocery store rather than at her former restaurant.

Memory books created over the years will be on display and the stuffed bears that have been Christmas decor for more than two decades will grace the hall and receive a special salute at 6 p.m.

While many things changed over the years, countless friendships built over coffee and Friday suppers at Mrs. P’s will last forever.

“I loved it all. It didn’t ever drag, because every day was different,” Loretta says. “I could write a book!”

Wouldn’t it be something if she did?

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The final summer crew at Mrs. P’s Coffee Corner were, from left, Legacy, Loretta (Mrs. P), Kaelan, Amanda, Cindy and Gail.   Photos courtesy of Mrs. P

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Olivia and Madison learn the skill of applying a bit of elbow grease in Mrs. P’s kitchen.