Story Behind the Counter at CSM’s La Plata Cafeteria

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Caterers Pursued Varied Careers, Look to the Next Generation

The path of life has been a twisting, winding road for Corazon and Jun Dones of Fort Washington. In fact, their lives are less a single path and more like a series of trails that go in all directions, with branches all over the world.

Now, both are working on semi-retirement, but not the kind that includes rocking chairs and front porches. Their semi-retirement is being spent at the College of Southern Maryland La Plata Campus's cafeteria, where the two are the first people to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon. They are the contractors who operate the cafeteria and handle most of the college's catering jobs.

Both are originally from the Philippines, but Cora and Jun came to the United States at different times in the 1970s, Jun in 1974 and Cora in 1975. Cora worked at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission for 25 years before retiring from her laboratory director position in 2000. That alone would be an impressive career, but at the same time she and Jun were busy with many other things that could easily have been considered full-time jobs.

For one, they owned and operated a restaurant in Fort Washington called The Golden Dragon. The restaurant was a popular place for Washington, D.C., politicians and boasted big-name visitors like former President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Martin O'Malley, or dignitaries from the Philippines who stopped by for a meal when they were visiting the U.S.

In the 1990s the couple mobilized and spearheaded a fundraising campaign to build a 74-unit home for elderly residents in Oxon Hill called the Mrs. Philippines Home for Senior Citizens and the Handicapped. The Cultural Center of the Philippines was also designed by Jun, who is an architect by trade.

Meanwhile they remained active in their native country. While at the WSCC, Cora acted as a liaison between contractors here and local governments there to coordinate water and sewer projects in Filipino neighborhoods. Cora has a love of the sugar industry and once coordinated a conference on sugar in the Philippines, where the industry thrives. Her first job, in fact, was as a chemist for the Philippine Sugar Commission. She has both bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry.

For a time, Cora served as an O'Malley appointee on the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

Oh, and then there are their five adult children, who the couple have raised to be involved in their community.

“It's been a very busy life for me, my family, my husband,” Cora said one afternoon in the kitchen area of the CSM cafeteria, where she had taken a moment out of her day to talk.

The Dones' list of professional accomplishments is extensive, yet what Cora really wants to discuss is less about career and more about community. For instance, she is currently executive director of the Philippine Cultural Center in Fort Washington and works hard to help Southern Maryland residents who come from her home country. Through her work at the college, she directs students to La Plata for their studies. All of this goes toward the point where she and Jun find themselves now: they know they will retire completely soon, and they want to make a clear path for those who follow.

“We don't count the money anymore, we count the days,” she said. “We are trying to get everything ready for the next generation.”

Working at a college cafeteria ties directly into that philosophy. First, their son Alex is working full time with them in the cafeteria to learn the ins-and-outs of the operation. The family's plan is for Alex to take over the business completely and he's been training his entire life for the task.

“I started at 7, working in the restaurant,” he said. “I've been the bus boy, the prep guy, and then the chef.” He has his bartending license and is running the cafeteria at the Upper Marlboro courthouse, feeding 1,000 people a day. “I'm still learning, though. I like to get my hands in there and do it. I get to learn more that way.”

Jun is happy to share his work philosophy with his son. The family believes in work, and Cora knows she has to be completely involved in the day-to-day operations if the business is to run smoothly.

“Business is business, but this is a family business,” she said. “You can't be an absentee owner. We are hands-on, so we can solve the problems right when they happen. The solution is always there, and when you're operating a business, there's always something.”

Since taking over the contract at CSM in 2012, Jun said the business philosophy has been to keep the menu prices down and strive for plenty of variety for the customers, which include everyone from students to faculty to visitors.

“We focus on students who have a limited budget,” he said. “That way, if someone only has a couple of dollars, there is something on the menu for them. We don't let them go hungry.”

For students like Jeffrey Collins of Bryans Road, that's a pretty good combination. The first-semester student was studying in a booth and eating his lunch one afternoon and said he is a frequent cafeteria customer. “The food is pretty good,” he said, and the service makes him comfortable. “They're very nice and respectful. It's always better to have good manners and be respectful of other people.”

Kenny Nguyen of Waldorf is a big fan of the cafeteria. “It's a good place to do homework and the food is delicious,” he said. He likes that there are inexpensive options and it's not necessary to buy an entire meal. “It's the little things that keep me going. I'm fine as long as I get something to eat.”

Cora understood his message clearly.

“You have to be affordable for everybody,” she said. That and the customer service the business provides are part of what make this cafeteria stand out. “We are giving back what we gained,” Cora said.