Donna Driskell is the owner of the Corner Cafe on Dawson Road. Before that, she was employed with F&W Forestry Services, where she did financial reporting for the agribusiness firm. She’s also been active politically with local conservative groups. She recently spoke with Managing Editor Danny Carter about her life as a restaurateur.
Q. What was your first job?
A. I babysat from the age of 13. Burger Chef was my first “real” job. I worked for Ruth and Carey Gates when I was 17. It was one of the best learning experiences of my life.
Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?
A. New clothes and taking the family out to dinner.
Q. What’s the single most effective technique you found during the past two years for keeping employees motivated?
A. I’ve found that explaining the reasons behind why I am making a change or the expected outcome helps my employees understand and be on board with my decisions.
Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your own business?
A. My daddy died Nov. 30, 2011. He was the love of my life. I could have never imagined how lost and empty I felt without him. B.J. Fletcher is a good friend and understood I needed a major project to get me out of the bed and back into the world. She knew the previous owners were involved with other projects and weren’t going to open the cafe in 2012. I spoke with Larry Walden in January and opened in a few days. I certainly have been busier now than at any other time in my life. It has been good therapy.
Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?
A. Cary Gates, B.J. Fletcher, Rachelle Beasley and Fred Sharpe are people that I’ve asked for and received advice from. They have all been very helpful.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?
A. My former employer, F&W Forestry Services Inc., taught me many lessons in cost cutting while keeping your customer service level high. The recession hit the forestry industry several years before it affected the rest of the economy. I learned to continually examine practices and adapt to improve while cutting expenses. There isn’t a position in the cafe that I can’t and won’t work when necessary.
Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology – examples email, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. – what would you most like to see go away?
A. I’m not a bluetooth fan. It makes me uncomfortable for people to talk to someone else on the phone while looking in my direction. I never know when their phone conversation ends and their conversation with me begins.
Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?
A. My favorite gadget in the kitchen is our professional KitchenAid mixer! I’ve always wanted one and use it as often as I can dream up a project.
Q. What is your favorite tradition?
A. Thanksgiving is my favorite family tradition. I’ve hosted it since I was 20. I love that all of our family gathers together. There are two days a year that are a “must, no excuses accepted” and that is Thanksgiving lunch and Christmas Eve dinner. Now that my children and nieces are grown, they all make a dish or two. We decorate the night before. Of course we love the food, but the special time together means the most. It is a tradition I hope continues long after my sister and I are gone.
Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?
A. One thing I miss the most is having time to read. The last book I read was one Rick Muggridge gave my daughter, Andrea, when she worked for him. It was Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
Q. I’m up and going by? What is your morning routine?
A. Monday through Friday I’m up by 5 a.m., at the cafe by 6. Bagels go into the oven first. We’re blessed with an awesome group of people that start coming in around 6:30 and have coffee while the bacon and grits finish cooking. As soon as Toni Ann and the rest of the servers are in I start cooking the soup of the day and any desserts we will have.
Q. What famous person would you like to meet and why?
A. I daily look forward to seeing Jesus face to face. He gave His life for me and my sins and gets me through each day. Historically I’d love to chat with Winston Churchill. I firmly believe we would be a German speaking country if it weren’t for him. Of course, Matthew McConaughey would be fun, too.
Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?
A. Before grandchildren, I loved to garden. Now when I have any free time, I want to have an adventure with them.
Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?
A. If I did anything differently it might be that I’d have a partner so I’d have more free time.
Q. Best thing about your job?
A. The best thing about my job is getting to know my customers. One of the best ways for me to let people know I care is by feeding them, and I get the pleasure of doing that seven days a week.
Q. Worst thing about your job?
A. Struggling to make a restaurant successful in this economy is what worries me the most.
Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was ...?
A. Psychology and philosophy are the two most beneficial courses I took in school.
Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?
A. If I had to include a career that didn’t involve feeding people it would be having a center where I could help rehabilitate people that have gotten into trouble and need help getting back into the world. I know there is a tremendous need for a center that enables people to be successful. I want to have resources onsite for counseling/therapy, financial management, education and work training.
Q. Finish this thought: “On the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself ...”
A. Taking all of my grandchildren on a summer long vacation, no parents allowed.
Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?
A. I believe a strong business leader must be flexible.
Q. Crystal ball time: What’s your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?
A. We have to make marketing our assets our first priority. We have to go out in search of industry to relocate here. We have tremendous natural resources that would be favorable for several different industry’s.
Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?
A. Frank Sinatra. I listen to Frank when I work out, clean house and in my car.
Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?
A. I hope Albany sees an influx of new industry and young people in the next 10 years. If we all decide that thriving is our first priority, we can make it happen.
Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?
A. My best vacation ever was camping at Vogel with my three children, my best friend, Cindy, and her children. We have awesome memories from camping trips.
Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?
A. Thankfully, I see a trend toward healthier eating over the last several years in the restaurant business. I’m very proud that we do not fry anything at the cafe. If oil is used, it’s olive oil. Because of Daddy’s heart disease, I learned at a early age how important healthy eating is.