Award-Winning Breakfast Fit for a President & First Lady
Gail Klingensmith describes her first encounter with President Barack Obama as “life changing.” It was during the 2008 presidential primaries when the then-U.S. senator from Illinois dined at her iconic Pittsburgh diner with Michelle Obama and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II.
“It was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me,” recalls Klingensmith, whose award-winning Pamela’s Diner has received all sorts of accolades and awards for its breakfast offerings. The Obamas noshed on the restaurant’s biggest sellers, Pamela’s famous crepe hotcakes (created by co-owner Pamela Cohen) and a side of Lyonnaise home fries.
Klingensmith adds that Cohen personally cooked for them, which impressed the power couple enough that they invited the owners to serve as guest chefs at the White House. They were, in fact, only second to celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who was the first to serve as guest chef in the Obama White House.
But long before the presidential acclaim, Pamela’s Diner and its five offshoots, which include a Peruvian café and Jewish bistro, had garnered much respect and recognition from fans and the media. Since opening the first store in 1980, they’ve won scores of “best breakfast awards” from the likes of Food Network magazine, USA Today and local media outlets.
Klingensmith credits their success and longevity to a number of factors, from hard work and dedication to keeping their businesses fresh by listening to others.
"When you come back to have it again it will taste exactly the same. Consistency is what we’ve been doing for 35 years.”
“One of the things we picked up early on is that you’re only as good as the people you’re surrounded by: your staff and customers,” she says. “Pam was the cook and I was the waitress at the first restaurant ... We have managers at all the stores now, but up until 1995, Pam and I tried to do it all ourselves.
“Thinking you can do it all by yourself is the biggest mistake because you will have no life. Because we have such great support people (managers, accountants, etc.), we have been successful. The most important part is that I have a wonderful partner in Pam Cohen. She is a foodie and I am the operations.”
Klingensmith also credits loyalty to their employees as essential to the restaurants’ success because when employees are happy they work harder, and with pride and ownership. The restaurants offer health care benefits and a 401K plan to employees.
“We have a lot of staff that has been with us since the beginning,” she says. “A few of those people have managed our restaurants, and we have helped them along the way.”
Klingensmith believes in keeping the businesses fresh — she listens to younger staffers about what’s “hot”— but at the same time she maintains that it’s important to “stick with what you know.” That’s why she mostly handles the breakfast fare at the Pamela’s Diner locations, while others run the show at the Jewish-inspired Nu Bistro and Peruvian-focused La Feria.
“We all bring something different to the table,” she adds. “Do what you do best and don’t try to be everything for everybody. Just because you’re a restaurant doesn’t mean you have to do all three meals. ... It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. I can make you a grilled cheese that you’re going to love. Tomorrow when you come back to have it again it will taste exactly the same. Consistency is what we’ve been doing for 35 years.”