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Where the grateful go to buy the good stuff

Discounts draw shoppers to Tin Can Pam's scratch-and-dent grocery.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

DADE CITY -- Pam Bowe can't publicly say exactly what she sells. She can't even say from week to week what she'll put on her shelves.

But she can offer good stuff cheap.

Bowe, a 46-year-old mother of three, owns scratch-and-dent grocery outlet Tin Can Pam's, a home for the overstocked, the discontinued, the dented and the discounted.

"We never know what we're going to get. They just load the truck and it comes in," she said as she stamped prices on a cartload of beauty supplies. "Sometimes it's just stuff that didn't sell. Thousands of new products come on the market each year, and something's got to go to make room. There's only so much shelf space out there."

So shoppers at her store can snap up a big bag of pretzels for 75 cents; overstocked coffee for $1.50 a can; kids cereal for $1 a box; toaster pastries in roughed-up cartons for 75 cents.

Because national brand companies are skittish about making the secret world of discount pricing public, Bowe said she is contractually forbidden from discussing or publicizing the brands she offers.

But shoppers can find that jumbo box of sport-oriented wheat cereal -- the kind with the famous athletes on the package -- for $1.80 (in a grocery store down the road it was on the shelf for $3.89). There's a barbecue sauce named for a famous Tennessee whiskey priced at $1.50 ($2.69 down the street). And a blue-labeled gourmet soup with an Italian-sounding name that goes for $1.89 a can at a regular grocery store is 75 cents with a torn label at Tin Can Pam's.

When a truckload of nationally known gourmet ice cream showed up recently, Bowe priced the half-gallon cartons at $1. "We sold 30 cubic feet of ice cream a day for three days," she said. "Word gets out, and it goes."

Bowe got into the arcane world of discount groceries about 15 years ago at a similar store in Hillsborough County. She opened her own place, Tin Can Pam's, with her husband, Dave, in 1994. The couple sank everything they owned into the store, then promised what they didn't have in the form of long-term leases and loans.

"It was the scariest thing I'd ever done," she said. "It was like jumping off a bridge with my whole family tied to me. We put everything on the line."

The couple found a vacant department store building in the busy N Seventh Street business district, next door to a church. They worked 6 a.m. to midnight stocking, ordering and learning how to deal with wholesale grocery warehouses up and down the East Coast. They didn't take a vacation for three years.

The hardest part, she said, was learning whom to talk to and how to get what her customers needed. There's never any guarantee what the warehouses will put on the truck. Last week it was dozens of cartons of crispy tortillas -- regular and jalapeno flavored. Bowe hadn't seen them before; she might not see them again. But she has them now, three bags for a dollar.

The store on N Seventh Street is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m to 5 p.m. Saturdays, but with five employees now, Bowe said she is down to working 50 or so hours a week. Her husband still handles the buying and business end while Bowe spends her day managing the store and incoming merchandise.

Browsing the 8,500 square feet of shelves, shopper Karen Pollock fit what Bowe described as her typical customer. A middle class mom with six children ranging from 4 to 21 years old, Pollock had a cart stacked with cereal. "You don't know what's going to be here, but I can always count on saving money," Pollock said. With a laugh, she added, "Don't put this place in the paper, everyone will come."

In another aisle, Sheryl Tarvin said she makes her weekly grocery list, then comes to Tin Can Pam's first. What she finds there, she crosses off her list. For whatever is left on the list, she heads to a conventional grocery store.

Bowe said the hard work has been worth it. She enjoys owning her own business, and she feels like part of the community.

"I have people tell me, "Before you were here, we could eat. But now we eat better,"' Bowe said. "It makes you feel like you're doing something, helping families."

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