Blue Devil of the Week: Overseeing the Work Behind the Meals

Duke Dining’s Valerie Williams understands the recipe for success at the Marketplace

Duke Dining's Valerie Williams has been a familiar face to Duke students for several decades. Photo by Stephen Schramm.
Duke Dining's Valerie Williams has been a familiar face to Duke students for several decades. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Name: Valerie Williams

Position: Manager, East Campus Marketplace

Years at Duke: 41

What she does at Duke: Williams oversees the front-of-house operations at the Marketplace on East Campus. With around 70 employees, the Duke Dining team feeds around 700 students each day for breakfast, 500 for lunch and around 1,000 for dinner.

In her role, Williams helps set staff schedules, ensures budgets can be met and that students have an enjoyable dining experience.

“I do a lot of computer work, and I learned a lot of about labor and food cost,” Williams said. “It’s stuff I had no idea about when I got here. I’ve learned a lot.”

Williams started working at Duke Dining as an 18-year old in 1978. Her grandmother, Viola Watson, had worked at Duke years earlier. Her aunt Fetney Hart and uncle James Watson worked alongside her on the staff at the Great Hall on West Campus.

“They had been there for years by the time I started,” Williams said.

Williams’ first job was as a food service worker, deboning roasted turkeys, making sandwiches and putting together salads. Before long, she became a head cook, then an assistant manager, and in 2000, she became a manager.

She credits her moves to embracing opportunities and taking professional development opportunities – such as computer courses and a public speaking workshop – seriously.

“I didn’t come here to stay in that same role,” Williams said.

What she loves about Duke: Williams said there is a small circle of co-workers – including longtime colleagues Saundra Norwood, Georgia Terrell – who have worked alongside her for decades. This group has become close friends and helped each other navigate their careers at Duke.

“It’s more than working, it’s like a family atmosphere to me,” Williams said. “A bunch of us have been here 20-plus years, so we’ve bonded. It’s the best. I can relate to them about things that aren’t just our jobs. We relate on a personal level. We all pretty much started at the same time. We grew together.”

A memorable day at work: Seven years ago, Williams moved from the Great Hall on West Campus to the Marketplace.

With an all-you-can-eat format – as opposed to the a la carte set-up on West Campus – and a steady stream of hungry first-year students, Williams recalls spending her first day stunned at the amount of food that came out of the Marketplace’s kitchen.

“I was like ‘Wow,’” Williams said of her reaction that day.

In the years since, Williams said she’s grown to enjoy the vibe on East Campus. She finds the monthly theme dinners – such as a cruise ship-inspired meal of a Thanksgiving Feast – especially rewarding.

“Those really stick out to me,” Williams said. “We’re tired at the end of those days, but we love doing it.”

She can’t do her job without: Williams is a devout planner. Before any staff members show up for their shift, she likes to have a clear idea of what needs to get done.

“I want everything laid out, I like to be ahead of the game,” Williams said. “You never know what you’re going to get in food service.”

Variables such as staffing, diner turnout and menu-item availability can affect a meal service.

“I want to have two plans,” Williams said. “I want to have a plan for how everything is going to run if all of my staff shows and nothing happens. And I want a plan for how everything is going to run if anyone is out and I need to move people around.”

First ever job: Williams’ first job was at Duke. And it came in whirlwind fashion.

Not long after Williams graduated from high school, her aunt helped her get a job interview with Duke Dining.

“They wasted no time,” said Williams, who had her interview in the morning. “When I got home from the interview, my grandfather said ‘Duke called, you got the job.’ And they wanted me to come back and work at 4 o’clock that evening. I’ve been working here ever since.”

Best advice received: When Williams was early in her Duke career, her grandmother and aunt, both Duke co-workers, outlined the approach to her job that’s served her well.

“They told me to ‘go in, do what you’re supposed to do, ask questions when you don’t understand and always strive for the best,’” Williams said.

Williams said that sentiment has buoyed her as she’s learned new skills, added new responsibilities and become a leader.

Something most people don’t know about her: With 17 nieces and nephews ranging in age from 40s to teens, Williams said she cherishes her time with her large, extended family.

Some of the most fun times in her role as an aunt came while watching her nephews Brad and Blake Watson play football, first at Green Hope High School and later in college.

“When they were in high school, I’d go see them play football every Friday night,” Williams said. “I loved it. If you ask their aunt, they were the best things on the field

Blake will be a redshirt freshman receiver at Old Dominion University this fall while Brad recently wrapped up his playing career at Wake Forest University. When the Demon Deacons and Blue Devils squared off, it put Williams in a tough spot.

“Being that I’m a Duke fan, it was very hard,” Williams said. “When they played here, that was his senior year, my whole family was there. There were maybe thirty of us. We all had on black T-shirts with his picture on the front. I like Duke, but I love my nephew.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.