By starchefs |

Pam Willis Talks Restaurant Design Challenges

That golden light still pours in through the large, pristine factory-style windows at Pammy’s. The lustrous beams hit those familiar places on the marble and wood tables, leather banquettes, and tiled fireplace, illuminating the fine dining space that owners Pam Willis and Chef Chris Willis designed themselves. Now they’re re-designing in a style they could have never anticipated. 

“Everything has been crazy! We pivoted to takeout quickly, by March 19th. We turned a fine dining restaurant into a takeout spot, selling chicken parm and meatball heroes—stuff everyone wants to eat. We have to pivot now again to create a whole other experience.” When StarChefs spoke with Pam Willis this summer, Pammy’s was preparing to shut down, again, on July 18th, for two weeks of redesign before reopening August 3rd. “I think about what I want and expect if I’m going into a restaurant to eat, and it should be really worth it. I don't want to sit next to a shield of plexiglass and aluminum. It’s not worth it to me to eat out like that. Creativity needs to be inspired,” she says. 

Willis’ creativity also provides continuity. While shopping at a salvage yard, she procured several old windows that were once part of a steel factory, echoing those light-giving windows they already have. And the manner in which Willis will utilize them is dual purpose. The windows will hang between tables, functioning as partitions and also creating a kind of “hallway” to guide patrons through the space. 

A big beautiful communal table has always been an important part of the dining space at Pammy’s. Even though communal dining may not return for some time, Willis was not willing to get rid of it. Instead, she’s covering the table with flowers and the footprint of that table is now a flower shop. “Guests can purchase a bouquet of flowers as they leave. And we’ll occupy empty space with plants and flowers, a huge design change. All the flowers and bolognese!”

Outside the restaurant, The Willises had their eyes on a parking lot out back. But they couldn’t come to an agreement with the neighbors and decided the entrance/exit was too unsafe for patrons anway. “So we’re putting tables in front of the restaurant, on a busy road, with permission from the city. We’re building out the patio over the next two weeks, using Jersey barriers for safety. It’s going to be all wood and twinkly lights and plants—the most beautiful patio ever made behind Jersey barriers,” says Willis. 

Pammy’ pre-pandemic capacity was 86 seats. The new indoor design will leave 40 bookable seats, and once the patio is finished, it will provide additional outdoor seating for 16. Handwashing stations will be set up throughout the space, “everywhere,” says Willis. “As a mom, I tell my kids, you need to wash your hands at least every 15 minutes, and wear your masks, and keep your fingers out of your mouth.” Pammy’s general manager is working on a manual to codify all the new rules for the redesigned space. And since design is an integral part of the dining experience, if you’re changing the design, you’re changing the menu, or vice versa. 

“We have to come up with a whole new menu that suits the restaurant now. In a way, it will be kinda more fine dining, back to our roots. The whole team is ramping up to do the best menu they've done in their entire lives. It will be a $65 set price menu. It's a new model because you can't just sit at the bar and get an app and a negroni anymore. We need to create continuity for servers, and pre-fixe style generates a higher check average,” Willis says.

In February before coronavirus hit, Pammy’s had recorded it’s best month ever. “We were on fire! Everyone was happy, the cup was overflowing. Then we had to lay off almost everyone except two managers, and employees who could not go on unemployment,” she says. “I’ve been very conservative about reopening. Takeout was sustaining. I’m nervous to welcome people back. It’s not going to be perfect, but it will be beautiful.”  

And please, no plexiglass. 

Written in the summer of 2020.