With one hand holding a spatula and the other pointing across the Wilkes cafeteria, Tony the Grill Guy tends to his work station and his customers at the same time. He displays a wide grin as he calls to a student by name.
“How you doing today?” He asks. “You have to try today’s special.”
And while his real name is Tony Wallace, more students associate him as Tony the Grill Guy because this nickname describes him in his setting, doing what he does best. It also fittingly describes his laid back, friendly approach that has gained him so much popularity among students at the cafeteria.
“Everyone knows Tony, I’d say,” Matthew Bishop, senior English major, said. “You just see him every day, talk to him, see how he’s doing.”
“He’s very friendly,” J.T. Keer, sophomore education major, said. “He’s looking out for the students’ best interests.”
“He actually starts a conversation with you,” Sydney Mohr, freshman nursing major, said.
Wallace joked that this popularity with students is because he talks so much. Or, it could be due to the warm greeting he extends to students, which he said is something they remember.
“I think when the student walks into the cafeteria, the first thing, it starts with the first person they see,” Wallace said. “So if they get a warm greeting and they feel welcome there … it might start their day off right.”
This interaction with students is something Wallace feels is important to his job at the Wilkes University dining hall, where he has worked since February 2006. While he describes his position there as “just a grill person,” his role includes much more than simply cooking grilled food.
Wallace’s other duties include various tasks like cleaning, preparing food stations and transitioning into other meal periods. He’s never at the grill for too long, because one second he’ll be flipping grilled cheese sandwiches and the next he’s moving to the classics station to serve a waiting student, or rushing out back to get more ingredients.
Even though he admits the rushing around can be mentally straining, Wallace said he’s never had a bad day at the café. If he’s having trouble with knee pains or such, he doesn’t let it affect his work.
“You can’t let the students see that. You have to have that smile, have to have that positive energy every day,” Wallace said.
He said this positive interaction is something all workers should strive for.
“That’s what I think everybody should do, to have that approach,” he said.
He said there’s nothing worse than when a food server has a negative attitude and abruptly hands students their food without trying to start a connection with them. This is something he experienced when he went to college for two years.
He said he felt uncomfortable because the staff was very cold.
“I wouldn’t want that on anybody,” Wallace said.
So, Wallace puts the extra effort in making students feel comfortable when they visit the cafeteria. Students have noticed this effort, as they have recognized him for “outstanding customer service” at food committee meetings.
Customer service is not just something he feels he is required to do. Interaction with students is something that he genuinely enjoys and it’s what he cites, without hesitation, as his favorite part of the job.
“It’s the students. They make my days go by fast,” he said. “Working here and getting to see people every day and talking to people and just conversing makes for a shorter day than just coming in and doing your job and not putting any extra effort into it.”
Part of this is simply Wallace’s love of talking. He enjoys talking to the students, faculty, coworkers and whoever else is willing to listen.
“I like talking to people. I like talking about different things.”
And people like talking to him.
“Some people come here every day just to talk, just to say ‘hi.’ They don’t even come for the grilled food,” Wallace said.
Mainly, he likes to talk about current events. He said he watches the news three or four times a day to stay informed. He follows campus news as well, using means like the Student Government Facebook page.
Wallace also follows the Wilkes Athletics Facebook page. He said he always keeps up with how the Wilkes sports teams are doing, and that’s a big way he gets to know students. He said students like it when he can identify them from a game and acknowledge things like how many points they scored. He makes frequent appearances at sporting events to support these athletes.
He also gives advice to athletes going through injuries. Wallace, who ran track for four years in high school along with playing football and basketball, tore his ACL twice, so he knows what it’s like to go through a sports related injury.
In general, he notices when students are having a bad day and he tries to support them.
“I try to give them a little bit of advice and they say, ‘you know what, Tony, thanks a lot,’ and that makes them feel good,” Wallace said.
Another way he has reached out to students is on Facebook through his Tony the Grill Guy page. He uses it to post pictures of various foods, especially the daily specials and healthy options.
From a student perspective, Keer said this is a good technique.
“People actually look at that,” Keer said. “It encourages people to go to the café.”
Wallace also uses Facebook to stay in touch with his large family. He visits these family members in Atlantic City, his hometown, during the summer. While there, he enjoys fishing, lying on the beach, walking on the boardwalk and visiting high end casinos – though he said he doesn’t gamble.
Wallace has background in working at the casinos in Atlantic City, which is where he said he learned his people skills at a young age. He said his best jobs were working for Playboy Club and Casino, where he met Hugh Hefner and Al Pacino, and Planet Hollywood, where he met Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg and Sylvester Stallone.
And now, Wallace has become a little bit of a celebrity himself at Wilkes. He has nearly 400 likes on his Facebook page, which he started at the end of the summer. He hopes to continue this trend so more people will know the man behind the grill.