It is rare today for someone to work at the same job for more than a few years, but Della Dudley has been at it for 53 years. She has owned and operated restaurants in the Lynchburg area since the early 1960s, when she started as a waitress and kitchen helper.
Della is a fixture at her establishment, Dudley's Family Style Restaurant, located in a suburb of Lynchburg, Virginia. "This is just something I really enjoy doing," she said on the eve of her 53rd anniversary in the restaurant business. She has owned several restaurants at different locations, but for the past 16 years, Della has operated in Madison Heights, about five minutes drive from downtown Lynchburg.
This 60-seat diner-style location is a favorite among locals and draws a very regular crowd daily for lunch and dinner specials. "Most of my customers are regulars," she said. "I see three-quarters of them nearly every single day."
Dudley's Family Style Restaurant is one of those rare places where the servers know customers by name and often can remember exactly what drink they like and where they prefer to sit. And, rest assured, Della Dudley is never far away from the action.
Whether she is supervising kitchen staff or visiting with customers, Della is the energy of the restaurant. "I'm here every day we are open," she said. "I've always loved this business and the people...it's really about the people."
That seems to be th ekey to Dudley's success and the real reason she pours so much of herself into making sure every customer leaves satisfied. "My customers have always been good to me," she said in a soft -- almost embarrassed--voice. "They were here for me in the beginning, and have followed me over the years."
That customer loyalty extends far beyond the menu far, which features typical diner style food, southern homecooking and daily specials at a fair, inexpensive price. The loyalty derives from Della's personal commitment to the people in her community.
A white dry erase board hangs near the door listing some of her upcoming events dedicated to the community. She is planning a party along with Virginia House of Delegates member Scott Garrett, with whom she shares a birthday, to thank her customers for their support over the years. The event is absolutely free and that is typically of Della's deep generosity. That's not the only event she has planned.
On July 27, Dudley will host a benefit for one of her customer's that is fighting advanced cancer. "Latricia has lymphoma right now, and she needs our help," Dudley said. "I've seen this woman help people in need over the years when she couldn't afford to do it...she's just that kind of good person.
"Now, Latricia needs our help...and that's why we're doing this benefit," Dudley said. She hopes to raise $5,000 to help Latricia Hall meet some urgent medical and living expernses while she undergoes additional treatment and prepares for surgery to repair two anerurysms at the front and back of her brain.
The benefit has wide support in the surrounding community, thanks to the broad following the Della enjoys from her customers and employees, many of whom are helping to organize and promote the event.
"(Della) has a good heart," said Patricia Wixson, one of those regular customers. Wixson, 63, is spearheading the effort to collect items for the raffle during the event. "We've gotten wonderful support from all the businesses we have contacted," she said. "Everyone knows Della and they are glad to help."
Wixson said many local businesses have already come forward with support, and others are pledged the help. "Over 20 businesses have already given us some wonderful items for the raffle," she said. "And, we've had a couple very nice anonymous gifts donated too."
Della got slightly emotional at the news that so many businesses are supporting the Latricia-Hall-Benefitendeavor. "These are some wonderful people here...and I really do appreciate all they do...I really do."
The benefit is schedule July 27 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the restaurant, which is located at 4614 S Amherst Hwy, Madison Heights, Virginia. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12 and include food, drink and entertainment. All proceeds from the event -- 100 percent of the proceeds-- will to to Latricia Hall.
"I'm covering the food," Della said. "I want every penny to help Latricia."
This is not the first time she has been so generous. "I've been there before," she recalled. "I've been hungry, without shoes and for long time in a row. I know what it's like to need help."
And help is exactly what Della intends to do.
"I'd like to raise $5,000 from this event," she said. "We have wonderful raffle prizes that have been donated, including a brand new TV. We are taking donations and peole have been so generous already. We will do this."
Her confidence is shared by others as well. "Della is determined and we ant to help her with this," Wixson said.
She is one of Dudley's regular customers, usually dining at the restaurant two or three times a week when she is not traveling. Wixson volunteered to collect prizes and has been relentless in seeking out new supporters for the cause.
"Della does so much for people here -- more than most people know," Wixson said. "She always has a smile, always calls out our names, and always makes sure everyone is taken care of...and that's rare these days."
Wixson said she has witnessed Della's personal commitment to helping people many times over the six years that she has been coming to the restauant. "You don't find good people like that everywhere anymore," she said. "That's why it's important to help those that do good things."
Dudley said hosting events like this is not a business decision--it's a personal choice. "I love to give back to people," she said."People helped me when I needed it, and now I help them when I can."