Talking Shop with Palmi Henry, owner of Lil' Miss Muffin and Stuff in Jackson

Monday, August 31, 2009
Lauren Barrette, left, and her sister, Palmi Henry, operate Lil' Miss Muffin and Stuff Cafe in Jackson. (Fred Lynch)

A hot cup of coffee and a warm breakfast sandwich are morning staples for many Americans. Jackson residents will find that and much more when visiting Lil' Miss Muffin and Stuff. Owner Palmi Henry took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to talk with Southeast Missourian business reporter Brian Blackwell about her personal life, her start in the business and what the future holds for the shop.

Q: What motivates you to get up in the morning?

A: A big cup of coffee and all our early breakfast customers. But I must confess I am not a morning person, so don't ask me what I was thinking about with opening a coffee shop and cafe.

Q: Who has influenced you the most during your lifetime?

A: I would have to say my parents and my husband. My mother chose to be a stay-at-home mom. The specialists say that nightly sit-down family dinners are important. I guess my mother knew that because I can't remember not having a sit-down family dinner. It didn't hurt that she is a great cook.

My father is the hardest working person I know. My sister, Laura, and I have definitly received our work habits from him. He is a jack of all trades. When we need help he is always there.

Finally my husband, Kevin. Ten years ago he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. A lot of things you take for granted have been taken from him, [but] he continues daily to not allow his illness to define him. Every day he keeps fighting. His courage helps me to know that anything is possible and miracles can happen every day.

Q: If you could trade places with anyone for a day, who would it be and why?

A: I am living my dream. My husband is still with us after 10 years and my son is healthy and happy. I get to work with my sister and watch my nephew grow up. No, I wouldn't trade with anyone.

Q: Tell me the story of how you started your business.

A: As I have said, my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. After searching for a year for a diagnosis, in five minutes our life was destroyed!

Once we had time to adjust to the change, we both realized what had to be done. We had to live each day as if it were our last. Our son was 4 years old at the time. Kevin wasn't able to work and the doctors gave him three to five years to live. I was working at P&G. My husband wasn't able to drive or care for our son, because of the medicine he took to control the symptoms. I asked myself, "How I am going make a living and care for my son and husband?" I have always loved baking so I investigated the health department rules and converted my basement into a professional bakery. I started baking at night while my son and husband slept and sold during the early morning at the local farmers markets on my days off. My son, who was four, said "Mom, you're the Muffet Lady." He was a little confused, but inspired a great name. Hence, Lil' Miss Muffin was born. The stuff was added when I started baking other "stuff" -- breads, cakes, etc., and it has continued to grow.

I started with a wicker basket going to local Jackson businesses offering baked goods for their coffee breaks. Later I purchased two food delivery trucks that met health department regulations and we expanded our menu to include deli sandwiches and salad in addition to the muffins and stuff. When gas prices went through the roof, we had to reconsider the delivery trucks. We were approached by the Strickland family to open a coffee shop or cafe in their newly remodeled building in uptown Jackson. We have been here in the Strickland building since.

Q: Did you ever want to give up?

A: Yes. Owning a small business requires a lot of work, long hours and endless nights. But when a customer tells me how good our homemade soups, quiches or chicken salads are or a mother of a bride hugs you and tells you that you have made her daughter's wedding perfect, you get right back into the kitchen.

Q: What are the up and downsides of your business?

A: The downside of a restaurant is that you can't predict what people will want. We eat a lot of leftovers in our households, so I'm not sure if that's an up or down. Our sons joke they only get the "mistakes" -- broken or burned muffins. They think that is a downside. I consider that an upside -- no waste and kids fed. Paperwork is a huge downside. I hate paperwork -- ask Laura, my sister.

So far the ups outweigh the downsides. Customers become friends you look forward to seeing. As the song says, it's nice when everyone knows your name. With the specialty cakes, there are many kids that we have been making cakes for starting at their baptism and they're now 6 or 7 years old. It's funny when they come in to order their next birthday cake. They love to point out in the cake book their past birthday cakes.

Finally, setting our own schedule is an upside of our business, with doctor's appointments, physical therapy, various operations and kids' activities. I couldn't do this with any other business or without my family, mainly Laura, who is a co-owner of Lil Miss Muffin and Stuff Cafe. She joined the business about 4 years ago. We have a lot of fun and laughs working together.

Q: What gives you the greatest joy in your business?

A: I love working with my sister. After I left home for college, Laura and I were not very close due to distance. Now we are both mothers of two wonderful boys and we have become very close. We share everything. I know that Laura would also tell you that having customers tell us that they love your food is another great joy to our business.

Q: What do you think of the plan to put a streetscape in uptown Jackson, and do you think anything should be added to the plan?

A: I am all for improving the uptown Jackson area. No matter how modern we become, we still want the hometown feeling. In my travels to small towns, there are many downtown areas that have seen a rebirth that actually brings new people and commerce to the area. As I am sure you know, Jackson has recently been rated 59th of the best small towns. It is a great place to live and work. In uptown Jackson these building are over 100 years old with the old brick. They are beautifully remodeled and have great character. New is not always better. As far as adding to the plan, I know am not the only one who would suggest the uptown Jackson area needs a better parking plan.

Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the restaurant industry in Southeast Missouri?

A: Every day you see local restaurants that are closing, and it's scary. We always compare prices and hunt for bargains. We believe in quality over quantity. We choose to use organic local fruits and veggies and free-range eggs and meats. If you start with a quality product you will end up with a quality lunch, and that is what our customers deserve in exchange for their hard-earned dollars. With using local vendors we are keep our money locally and in the region, protecting our own business. This is the Heartland. We feed the rest of the world, so why go elsewhere?

Q: What are your future plans for Lil' Miss Muffin and Stuff Cafe?

A: Our business started small and we have kept investing and changing as the business grew. We will continue to do that in the future. My experience has taught me to be happy with who you are today, as there may not be a tomorrow. As many of our customers have asked, we do have plans to enlarge our cafe, but it will be driven by the economy and the improvements of the parking issues in the uptown Jackson area. We are in this business for the long haul.

Q: Tell me about your hometown, family growing up, where you've called home.

A: I grew up in northern Michigan and have two sisters and one brother. My father worked for P&G until they closed the plant in Cheboygan, Mich. My parents were then transferred. They toured eight different plants and they chose the Cape Girardeau plant. The Jackson area reminded them of the rural life we had in Michigan with less harsh winters -- or so we thought!

I have lived all over the United States, I went to college in Alma, Mich., moved to Dearborn, Mich., then to Texas for a few years. About this time my parents moved to Jackson and I came for a visit and later moved here for three years. I worked as a customer service representative at a local telecommunication company. I got that travel bug and decided to move to Hawaii where I met my husband, he was in the Army. My husband later retired from the Army, moving us to Florida. About a year after that my father had a heart attack and we came back to Missouri to help out my mom and brother and decided to settle here. I worked as a travel agent and later was hired by P&G. Finally I opened Lil Miss Muffin and Stuff.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I love to travel, as you probably guessed. My husband and I lived in Hawaii. I have been to Europe, Mexico and many of the Caribbean islands. I love to try food from different areas and countries then try to recreate it. When Kevin, my husband, got sick we committed our resources to a vacation every two years, in order to make memories for as long as we had together. We love to cruise and have a Disney Timeshare, so if I am gone from the cafe, I will be cruising. [I will] bring back new food ideas to try out on the patrons of the cafe. Last trip I got a Disney recipe for banana bread pudding. That is now a hit.

Q: What would be an ideal day off for you, and how difficult is it for you to get a day off?

A: An ideal day off would be to not go anywhere, just veg out in front of the Food Network channel. When I get a day off I normally have a huge list of things to do, the same as any typical working mother. The last day off I had I baked eight pies. With the current economy the cafe is now opened seven days a week, and with catering, getting a full day off is rare.

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