Q&A: Hope Valley Diner’s Will Davis reflects on one year owning a Durham ‘staple’

Will Davis, the 35-year-old owner of Hope Valley Diner in Durham, smiles in his restaurant's kitchen on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

By Ira Wilder

Will Davis owns Hope Valley Diner, a Durham restaurant and caterer. The business opened as Rick’s Diner in March 1998 and has been located on Shannon Road since June of 2010. For Davis, running the diner is a chance to return to the restaurant scene, an industry he has worked in and around most of his life.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: Tell me about Hope Valley Diner.

Will Davis: As of yesterday [Feb. 1], I’ve owned the business for one year. The business itself has been open 20-some years. Long story short, I met the owner about six or seven years ago now, and I was in sales. I used to sell compostable items, disposable items and all kinds of paper products to her. That’s how I got to know her, and one thing led to another. I was looking for a change. She decided to retire so we were able to work things out.

Obviously, we have the diner out front, and we have a large catering operation operating under one roof. The diner’s open seven days a week. Catering is wide open. We do the local market, but we also go around to a lot of different markets. It’s about 50 people that work here in total in front and back of the house.

You said you sold compostables. Is that how you began engaging with the restaurant industry?

I used to own a cafe before I sold that, and then I went into sales with disposable items. So, I’ve always been in and out of kitchens.

What inspired the change from sales to owning a restaurant again?

I just decided that I kind of missed the restaurant industry. One thing that’s different here though, is working in catering. I’m still dealing with food, still dealing with clients, but it’s not quite as hands on. I always had been in front of people in sales — you’re in and out, you’re on the road a lot. I was traveling a lot because I covered a large territory. Now, I’m not on the road as much. I’m able to work here and not have to do as much traveling. So, that’s one reason for the change as well.

Are you married? Kids?

Yes. married. I have two children — a nine-year old daughter and a one-year-old son.

I assume not having to travel so much helps with that.

Correct. Although, sometimes you work 60 or 70 hours a week in this business. I try not to, but sometimes it’s inevitable, but it’s a good problem to have. We’re busy. Sometimes, I spend a little more time here than I would like to, but you got to do what you got to do.

Were there any problems you had to overcome when you first took over the business?

I would say the number-one challenge were the customers who knew there was a change — not everyone knows, we didn’t make the announcement. I’m not that kind of owner. I stay back here. I don’t go out in the dining room and parade around, letting people know I’m the owner. That’s not my personality, but the ones who knew we had changed, just reassuring them that the quality and the service are still the same.

How did you do over your first year, financially?

The business is booming. Catering has really come back around. We have a lot more in-person events like weddings. It’s still a struggle, though. Prices are still high, food costs are high, but product availability is better than it was before. Labor is still a struggle. As I said, I am blessed to have about 50 employees. But you’re always looking for more people, that’s really tough. The labor market — it’s been hard since COVID. A lot of people left the industry, and they just haven’t come back.

If you had a line of really good workers waiting at the door, and they all wanted a job right now, how many of them do you think you could take on?

I’d probably try and hire all of them. I love growth. Growth is important. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. The more employees I can get, the better.

What’s the hierarchy of decision making? There are four desks in your office. Do you have managers that work under you?

We have several managers: a kitchen manager, a lead line cook and a catering manager. You have to effectively delegate and give tasks to other people.

Fifty employees is a pretty big operation. What is the split between the diner business and the catering business? Is it 50/50?

No. The diner business is about 40%, and catering is about 60%.

How many events do you cater every week?

I would say probably at least 100 to 125 every week. It’s a lot of events. We have 11 catering vans now that are on the road almost every single day. A lot of it is lunch delivery. We have to have a lot of drivers, and we cover Durham, Chatham, Orange County, Person County, we go to Henderson and Oxford. We go down to Sanford, Pinehurst and all the way out to Smithfield.

Do you expect the growth to continue this year? Do you expect it to be a record year?

Yes and yes. Most of the growth is organic, which is wonderful. It’s word of mouth. We really don’t do much advertising. One customer tells another ‘Hey, we used them for this event. You guys should use them too.’ We get that almost on a daily basis.

That must mean your food is good.

We’re blessed to have really amazing chefs. The consistency really helps. We’ve had one employee — she’s been here for over 20 years. Several chefs have been here for five, six, seven or eight years. We have a lot of repeat business. We have some customers that order from us three or four times a week. They expect a certain flavor, a certain presentation, and we’re able to get that out on a consistent basis that really helps the organic growth.

What’s your best-selling dish?

The vegetable plate or the pork chops.

Do you think you have any items on the menu that are underrated or are your favorites that you’d wish more people would try?

I don’t think so because we have a large, extensive menu. I can’t even think of anybody to compare it to. Any day and time, you can eat here and order something different. That’s why we have some customers that will eat here two or three times every single day, and they order different things. The large menu helps the business as well.

What are your goals for this business in the next five years, 10 years down the road?

Really to keep our standard where it is, just to make sure that we are keeping the guests satisfied. In this industry you’re not going to make all your money off of one person and at one time. You have to have just as many as McDonald’s or any high-end restaurant. You have to have repeat business. It’s the only way you can make it.

Why own a business in Durham?

Durham is a wonderful place to be. I think what drew me into this business was a couple of things. It’s a staple, and it’s been around for many years but also the size of it. It’s a large business — lots of employees, lots of volume. It’s a challenge, and I like to be challenged, which in the past year has caused me to grow in many areas. Durham was a great place for me, but this business is also. It’s a wonderful business.

One thought on “Q&A: Hope Valley Diner’s Will Davis reflects on one year owning a Durham ‘staple’

  1. I love this diner. I eat in upscale restaurants, and this diner consistently beats them all. Everything is from scratch, they have the best chicken cassidillas, soups, cheese steaks, also made with chicken, outstanding. I love everything they make!

Comments are closed.