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Pam Spell Talks 20 Years at Norma's Cafe in Oak Cliff

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Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.

[Photos: Garrett Hall/EDFW]

It's 4 p.m. on a Friday and things are in full swing at Norma's Cafe in Oak Cliff. Servers on the move refill drinks and take orders. The aroma and sound of sizzling meat escape the kitchen. Bells ring. Orders are up. Silverware clinks against plates of generous portions of food. Laughter and chatter round out the sights, smells and sounds so familiar in this 57-year-old diner.

This is the kind of hustle and bustle Pam Spell, the 58-year-old general manager who will celebrate her 20th anniversary with the cafe next month, cannot live without. Devoting most of her life to the restaurant business, she's worked as a waitress, a cook and now a general manager.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, she later moved to Brownsville, Texas for her father's job.

"My father was a shrimper, so we went to Brownsville. That was the leading industry down there," she says. "But Brownsville is so laid back and I'm a very fast-paced person. I want to go, go, go."

She fell in love with Dallas after visiting a friend who lived here and moved to the busy city in 1986.

After working at Vernon's Bar and Grill in Addison, Pam started working as a manager at Norma's Cafe in August of 1993, a move she says has forever changed and enriched her life.

She is so dedicated to her job that the first person she called after having a terrible car accident was her boss and owner of Norma's, Ed Murph. She calls her 52 employees her "brothers and sisters." She has countless pictures of her employees and customers on her cellphone and Facebook. She will work a 15-hour shift, if need be, and still go home with a smile on her face.

"A woman always has to go a little further than a man," she says. "A lot of people say it's a man's world, well, kinda it is. But a woman can always be that one step ahead. It doesn't have to be a man's world. You go for the gusto. Don't let anybody stop you, 'cause I didn't."

A charismatic, compassionate, sincere woman, her infectious laugh and dramatic hand gestures (she credits this use of body language to her Cajun ancestry) enchant those around her and keep guests coming back.

Here's a little bit of Pam's story, the woman who helps keep Norma's together with some hard work and a whole lot of heart.

What was your dream job growing up? Work in a restaurant. First I wanted to go to the Navy and then my first job was a waitress. I loved it and I thought, cool. Then I worked at Dairy Queen, then at a family-style diner [where] I was mostly a cook, and then I came to Dallas.

How would you describe Norma's? We're the '50s. We're homegrown. We're down to earth.

How did you get the job at Norma's? I looked online and there it was, Norma's Cafe. I go okay and I did it. So, I met Ed at Snuffers in Addison and it was neat, it was really neat. Ed impressed me a lot. He looked like my dad. He said he wanted me to come here and eat to see how it was. So me and some friends came here Saturday and they were busy. He kept on calling me and I thought, yeah, why not? And I've been here ever since.

How does it feel to work at Norma's? Awesome. It is, I mean, if you look around here, it's so homey. It's different from anywhere you would go. This is home. This is OC, Oak Cliff. It's all good in the 'hood, as I say.

How did you become the general manager of Norma's? Gerard was general manager and he was teaching me this, teaching me that, you know. He would always be one step ahead of me. So, I just thought, I'm going to be ahead of him. So I did it. I finally got it. He was like, "Wow. You already did this." I was like, "Yes!" So finally, Ed got another store so he put him there and I got my own store here.

Did you think you would still be at Norma's 20 years later? No, no. I was always teasing with Ed, which is the owner, and I says, "You know, I only last nine years at a place." And which I did. Back home, it was Dairy Queen nine years, and another family restaurant, it was nine years and I moved on. He goes, "Okay, we'll see about that nine years." And I go, "Okay." Twenty years later, I'm still here.

Why do you think you're still here? I love the people. I love the interaction with the people. I love my employees. I couldn't make it without my employees. I have some employees that have been here 20 years, 23 years. We have a relationship, I mean, that is [like] family. They need something, I'm here for them. I need something, they're there for me.

What is your favorite memory from your 20 years working here? On Thanksgiving weekend, we open for Thanksgiving. All my crew volunteers and we feed the homeless. We're up to like 5,000 people that we feed that one day. I get thank you letters, thank you cards, [and] people that appreciate what we do give me little bitty gift cards, you know to say thank you. [About four years ago], I had this one lady come up to me and tell me, "I'm hungry, can I eat?" And I say, "Yes, it's free. Come on." So she ate. Well, next year, we see the same lady coming in, but she has a bag. And she goes, "Here." And I go, "What's this?" And she goes, "It's a turkey. You fed me and I had no money and I want to make sure that somebody else can eat." It brought tears to my eyes. It's something that stays with your heart. And I love helping people.

Has Norma's always had a charitable mindset? Ed Murph started doing our Thanksgiving and I just, I tell Ed, he's the owner but I'm the boss. So I just keep on and on and on. I treat anybody that comes through that restaurant like it's my family. We feed homeless people here, it doesn't matter how bad they look or whatever. Because you'll get repaid. If it's not here, it's in heaven. We just give, give and give. I got plaques from different schools that I go to career day. We help the neighborhood out. I mean anybody that needs anything, we help them out. Ed's taught me a lot to give.

Tell me about the regulars. They come in; we already know what they want. By the time they get there, it's on their table. We lose our customers because they die. That's how we lose our customers. We have customers come two to three times a day. But they always come, every single day.

How has Norma's changed in the past 20 years? Changed? This hasn't really changed. But some of the food has, the prices have but it's the same. I have generations working here. Like my head cook, I got his wife working here, his daughter working here, and his two nephews working here. It's awesome. You know you're getting old when somebody comes up to you and wants an application and you remember him in his baby carriage. Outside of Norma's, we used to have little bitty apartments over by St. Cecilia's and now they're all highrises. You know how [in] New York, you have this one small little place and all these big buildings [around it]? That's what I imagine Norma's being one day.

What do you think your life would be like without Norma's? [gasps] Sad. It would be really sad. I mean, I'm supposed to be here at seven, I'm usually here by 6:20. I think in 20 years, I've maybe been three times late. I live my life every day like I want to, and I make sure I give back to everybody. And I tell everybody, "Go for the gusto when you can, 'cause you never know."

What does Norma's mean to you? Norma's means... oh God that's a hard question. Norma's means a lot to me. It means love, laughter and life. It's everything to me. Everything to me.

What's your favorite dish at Norma's? I love the garlic mushroom soup and I love the chicken-fried steak. It's good. And I tell you, this is the first time I ever had chicken-fried steak. So I tried it someplace else, and it was like [bad]. We've been even on the Travel Channel. So, it's good.

What do you like to do in your free time? I like to go out to eat, different places. My favorite is steak. Usually on my days off I think of things that I need to do here. I got my computer at home and I do that [and] watch TV at the same time. It's relaxing that way. I always say, "If you find a job you love you'll never work a day in your life." And I found that job. I love wood burning. You get a piece of wood, you put a saying on it, or you put a picture on it, [and] shellac it. [I've been doing this] all my life. That's like a little side thing I do. I did one of Ed and his family. I did one of our customers and all their family. I just do it and give it away. I also like to play Candy Crush!

What are you planning for your 20th anniversary next month? I'm going to Vegas! I went 25 years ago, so I know that's gonna be changing. One of my childhood friends from back home, Brownsville, she's going there for her birthday, which was July 3, and mine is July 31.

How has the journey been? It's been tough a while, but everything's been good. When my parents died, Ed was always there. When my brother died, Ed was there. He has a heart of gold and I think that's what made me stay. He would always teach me things. I guess he took me under his wing and taught me [things]. I think Ed and I have a very special relationship. I've been the longest manager he's ever had.

-Caren Rodriguez

Norma's Cafe

1123 West Davis Street, , TX 75208 (214) 946-4711 Visit Website