2012 Silver Plate—Ricky Clark: From operator to educator

At the tail end of his career, Clark now prepares foodservice employees to do what he did so well for 20 years.

Ricky Clark is an excellent example of the fallacy of the old argument, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” In Clark’s case, one who can do very well has been tapped to teach others his skill set.

Clark is the training and development coordinator and supervisor at the Academy for Staff Development, part of the Virginia Department of Corrections. His job is to select and prepare the trainers who will instruct DOC employees in 28 different career groups, everything from nursing to foodservice.

He came to the academy six years ago as a foodservice trainer after 21 years in foodservice positions at various DOC facilities. He has moved up the ladder and, in so doing, has also expanded the reach of the academy.

“At that time [2006] we were only offering training for foodservice and administrative support,” Clark explains. But there were just so many people out there who needed training that we just weren’t providing for. So we’ve opened up and offered new classes and hired more trainers to build the program.”

In his current role, Clark draws on more than two decades of operational experience with the DOC: 20 years with ‘road camps,” which were smaller prisons set up to supply the Virginia Highway Commission with cheap labor for building and maintaining roads, and two years as director of foodservice for the Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail. During his time as an operator, Clark was recognized on a regular basis for maintaining both the lowest food cost and highest level of sanitation and quality within the DOC. He also was part of a committee that spent two years creating a recipe system that is still used in all DOC facilities.
Growing up in Buena Vista, Va., a small town about 50 miles north of Roanoke, Clark was drawn to the foodservice industry by parents who both worked in the business. But, he admits, as a teenager he could not have imagined working in prison foodservice.

“My mom worked in a college cafeteria [Southern College for Women], and I eventually went to work there as a dishwasher,” Clark recalls. “There was a supervisor there who taught me, and he helped me grow in the industry. He got me an assistant cook’s position because I told him that I like to cook.”

The company that managed the college foodservice was Marquis Services Inc., and Clark went through its management trainee program. After two years, Clark had gotten married and decided he needed to earn more money, so he moved on to Shamrock Systems Inc. For one year he worked at the College of William and Mary, and then he was transferred to a nursing home.

“I worked for contract companies long enough to know that you move a lot,” Clark says. “In 1984, I decided I was going to find a state job, and I answered an ad for a foodservice officer even though I had no idea what that was.”

What “it” was, was a civilian foodservice job within the Virginia DOC, at the Botetourt Correctional Unit in Troutville, Va. Clark accepted the job and has never looked back.

“I guess I have pride in giving service to people,” Clark says in explaining why he found a home in correctional foodservice. “I like being able to go out into the community and have an offender who has gotten out of prison approach me and say, ‘Thank you for what you taught me and how much I learned under your guidance.’ It gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing I helped somebody and they’re still out there—you know, they haven’t committed another crime and gone back to prison.”

He says he first believed he was where he belonged during his first Christmas at Botetourt.

“My first Christmas there I did a real homestyle spread for the offenders,” he says. “I decorated the whole place up. I brought in pine branches from my tree at home, and I bought red ribbon and I made bows and put them in all the windows of the dining facility, and I brought in candles.”

As Clark remembers it, the warden was so impressed he tried—unsuccessfully—to get a newspaper or TV news crew to come out to document what he had done.

“Several of the offenders came to me later and told me how much they appreciated what I had done,” Clark notes. “I had had questions about coming to work in a prison because I had never been in that setting before. But now I felt I was in a place where I could offer something.”

Clark adds that working with inmate employees could be rewarding and challenging, noting that “I probably did as much counseling in my job as I did foodservice management.” But he had a simple approach to employee management: treat inmates as though they weren’t incarcerated.

“I would tell them, ‘If I hire you I expect you to work like you would if you were in a restaurant, and if you do I will treat you just like you were working in a restaurant unless you give me a reason to treat you otherwise.’ And that worked, because they felt that I was respecting them.”

After six years at Botetourt, Clark moved on to Smith Mountain Lake Correctional Unit for two years, before returning to Botetourt for nine more years. In 2003, he became foodservice director at Albemarle/Charlottesville, and in 2005 he was tapped to be a foodservice trainer.
However, this was not his first stab at teaching. In fact, Clark says he says he has seen himself as an educator ever since he started at Botetourt.

Before my staff could do their jobs properly I had to educate them,” he says. “If you didn’t prepare them then you were the one who was failing, not them, because you hired them. So the trainer in me has always been there.”

Clark’s skills were recognized, and he became an adjunct trainer eight years before teaching would be his full-time job.

“I would drive three hours one way in order to teach a one- or two-hour class,” he recalls. “And when people see you are willing to drive that far, to go that distance to see that they get what they need to succeed in their jobs, you build a rapport with them that doesn’t go away.”