‘Mama Harriett’ to give out 2nd Happy Dollar Christmas dinner

Published 9:46 am Wednesday, December 26, 2018

By NANCY WILSTACH / Community Columnist

Harriett and Joseph Panchoo started a Christmas tradition last year by serving Christmas dinner to all who needed something to eat on Christmas Day.

The Panchoos own Happy Dollar on Main Street in Montevallo, and it is truly a happy store. While you stroll the aisles choosing among balloons, party favors, party decorations, phone cases, kitchen utensils, Alabama and Auburn accessories, Nike shoes, colorful woolen shawls and snack items, music plays softly. Most selections are upbeat religious, the kind of music that touches the soul gently.

Harriett gives off those nurturing vibes, and it was a vision that led her to start feeding folks on Christmas Day.

“We gave out 107 plates last year,” she said. She prepared turkey, chicken, dressing, green beans, macaroni and cheese and cake. “I cooked at home and brought it down here. When I got here to set up, there was a line of people outside.”

She thought the people were there to eat, “but they told me they were there to help me. Several were regular customers.”

Harriett and her volunteers cleared and washed the front counter and then screened off the store. Using chafing dishes and paper plates and utensils, they ladled out the holiday fare from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.

She said that she intends to follow the same schedule this year and basically the same menu with the addition of a baked ham.

The Happy Dollar has evolved since the Panchoos opened for business three years ago with the idea of operating a typical dollar store. “We basically had to rebrand,” Harriett said, “because we could not buy merchandise in the volume of a Dollar Tree, for example, and the cost was prohibitive for us.”

Thus, the Happy Dollar stocks higher quality goods than one finds in the typical dollar store. Remember those Nike shoes? Still the Panchoos manage to hold the prices down, making the store definitely the first stop for a lot of Montevallo customers who might otherwise burn up extra gasoline going 10 or 15 miles away.

Harriett and Joseph both have experience in running convenience stores and truck stops for large national companies, so they did not jump into their business with no clue about some of the pitfalls.

“We are here six days a week,” Harriett said, “and our life savings is in this business. It sounds funny, but, although there is pressure from owning our own business, it is not the same kind of pressure.”

It is much more rewarding to work for themselves, she said, instead of trying to please faceless executives hundreds of miles away.

The Christmas dinner on Tuesday is not just for the homeless, she said. “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry,” Harriett said.

“I know that I am called to feed the hungry,” she said. “I had a vision, and I really saw it: ‘Mama Harriett’s Mission Kitchen.’”