When you order food from one of the on-campus vendors, what kinds of items are you looking for to help you decide where to eat? Is it the genre of food? How about the vegetarian or gluten-free options? What about the kind, funny man who works full-time at Qdoba and is incredibly considerate with his all-too-generous serving sizes?
Service with a smile has never materialized itself more perfectly than with Willy Benton. An employee at Chapman since 2006, Benton said he’s wholeheartedly embraced the additional work required of the university’s growing student population. In fact, he’s never called out sick or missed a single day on the job.
“When I first got here, I saw all these kids and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow, we got to make a lot of food,’” Benton said. “But I wasn’t intimidated. It added to my passion I have for cooking and making people happy.” When asked what Benton would like to refer his title to, he confidently replied, “A people-person.”
On the surface-level, Benton may appear to a Qdoba first-timer as an ordinary food service employee: he comes into work to perform daily tasks like clean and prep the Qdoba kitchen, stock the materials and grill and serve the food. However, after returning a few times to bask in the glory of Qdoba’s free queso and guacamole, students quickly pick up on Benton’s warmhearted personality.
“Even if I’m not feeling happy today, I have the passion to keep customers happy. If I’m having a bad day, I push it to the side and keep it forward with all the goodness,” Benton said. “If you guys aren’t happy with the food one day, you’ll come back for the conversation. The conversation will make you remember this guy, because what he said right here made you laugh.”
It’s not uncommon to see someone say, “Dude, the black guy at Qdoba is awesome” while walking through the Argyros Forum Student Union – I’ve overhead it twice this semester and I don’t even have any classes on main-campus. But Chapman students don’t know much about Benton’s personal life besides his hard work behind the counter. Growing up, Benton remembers how “terrific” it was to be the only male in the kitchen cooking big holiday dinners for his family. He cites his mother as the igniter that fueled his interest in the food industry. Now with six of his own kids, from ages 13 to 25, family remains an essential aspect of his happiness and motivation.
“Family to me is everything and growing up, I was always in the kitchen with mom. She had me at a very young age and times back then was kind of hard, so it’s a blessing for me to be here now,” Benton said. “Now if I’m in the kitchen my daughters usually help me. That right there is the most memorable time for me because by them helping me out, they’re going to carry that onto their family and their kids.”
Passion is a word that Benton cites as his driving force, he said. Not only in the service he provides, but in the interactions and connections he’s able to form with customers.
“I once had a guest that stopped me and she was like, ‘You’re so nice,’” Benton said. “Just to hear that, that right there brought joy to me because I didn’t do it for other people; I’m just having a conversation. It just makes me feel good and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Benton remembers the moment he knew Chapman would offer a welcoming place to share his talents. Back in 2006, with no babysitter for his son, Benton walked through Chapman’s interview doors with his son’s hand in his and met Executive Chef Jim Douglas.
“He saw my son and knew I had a reason to work and to be here. Chef Jim looked at my background, at how I proved myself, how I presented myself and with the conversation that we had, I knew he understood me and I understood him,” Benton said. “Every time I see Chef Jim, I tell him I love him and I embrace him with a hug because my heart is genuine and with him, he gave me the opportunity to work here. The doors are open and he made me feel so at home with everything.”
While employed at Chapman, Benton’s been able to pay off his house in Orange, California, which he originally purchased in 1997. He said he’s grateful for the opportunity he has working on a college campus and his dedication and loyalty to his job is evident with one quick glance. So please, next time you stop by Qdoba, introduce yourself to Willy Benton; he’s sure to spark up a friendly conversation.
“When you guys see me behind the counter and doing what I do, you appreciate that and I appreciate you for appreciating me,” Benton said. “Because that right there is letting you know that I’m doing my job.”