August 18, 2019

Dones Family: The Story Behind the Counter

Dones
Jun and Corazon Dones are the contractors who operate the College of Southern Maryland cafeteria at the La Plata Campus and handle most of the college’s catering jobs. Their son, Alex, right, is in training to take over the business from the busy couple. The Jun and Corazon also have four other adult children.

Corazon and Jun Dones of Fort Washington have traveled a twisting, winding road through life. Their lives are less like a single path and more a series of trails going in all directions, with branches throughout the world and most recently to the College of Southern Maryland.

Today, both are working on semi-retirement, but it’s not the retirement that includes rocking chairs and front porches. Their semi-retirement is being spent at the College of Southern Maryland La Plata Campus cafeteria, where the two are the first people to get there in the morning and the last to leave at the end of the work day. They operate the cafeteria and handle most of the college’s catering jobs, as contractors.

Cora and Jun are originally from the Philippines, but they came to the United States at different times in the 1970s, Jun in ’74 and Cora in ’75. Cora spent 25 years working at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission before retiring from her laboratory director position in 2000. That career alone would be impressive, but at the same time she and Jun were busy with other paths that could easily have been considered full-time jobs.

First off, they operated and owned a restaurant in Fort Washington called The Golden Dragon. The popular restaurant was a hot spot for Washington, DC, politicians and boasted big-name visitors like former President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Martin O’Malley, or dignitaries from the Philippines who came in for a meal while they were visiting the US.

During 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, an architect by trade.

Meanwhile the couple were still active in their native country. While at the WSCC, Cora acted as a liaison between contractors here and local governments in the Philippines to coordinate water and sewer projects in Filipino neighborhoods. Cora has a place in her heart for the sugar industry and once coordinated a conference on sugar in the Philippines, where the industry thrives. In fact, her first job 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.

All that time, the couple were raising their five now-adult children, all of whom were taught 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 few moments out of her day to chat.

The couple’s list of professional accomplishments is long, 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 to help Southern Maryland residents who come from her home country. Through her work at the college, she directs students to La Plata and College of Southern Maryland for their studies. All of this leads to 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 works 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 altogether and he has trained 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 about 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 happily shares 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 going 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 law and strive for plenty of variety for customers, a group that includes 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 student Jeffrey Collins of Bryans Road, that’s a 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.

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