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McDonald's manager bids farewell to Duke

He may not be a celebrated professor or a sports star, but Rafael Perez is still one of the most well-known people on campus.

As the store manager of McDonald's in the Bryan Center since 2002, Perez has served thousands of customers traditional fast food fare with his trademark smile and friendly nature.

Last week, however, Perez left the Duke restaurant to become manager of a larger location in Raleigh.

Perez said he was not looking to make a change, but he could not turn down the opportunity to take on more responsibility and a higher salary.

"If the money were the same, I would stay here without a doubt," he said. "I will miss the family atmosphere. It's special here."

Born in Medellin, Colombia, Perez managed an upscale steakhouse in his home country before moving to the United States in 2000. He quickly found a job at a McDonald's in Raleigh not far from North Carolina State University.

The students there were far less amiable than those at Duke, he said. "There's a more respectful atmosphere here," he noted.

Perez was transferred to Duke in 2002 with a promotion to store manager.

When he arrived, Perez was very tentative and nervous, recalled Sonia Ramirez, a current assistant manager.

But staff said Perez soon had everyone working together to make the McDonald's experience better for the customers.

"When he told us he was leaving, I couldn't believe it," Ramirez said. "Everyone has good and bad days, but Rafael is always great."

Over time, Perez has learned the idiosyncrasies of his steady customers, which include girls who order a large Diet Coke but only a small order of fries, and one student who orders five or six hash browns every morning for breakfast.

Others request round eggs instead of folded eggs in their breakfast sandwiches or ask for a triple-decker burger without the middle bun.

"We don't call that weird though," Perez explained. "It's not hard to please the people."

He oversaw a location that was ranked consistently near the top of the Performance Assessment for Culinary Excellence ranking compiled by Duke Dining Services, noted Jim Wulforst, director of dining services.

"There's no question about it. His leadership skills and customer service attitude were by far some of the best I've seen in the industry," Wulforst said of Perez.

The manager's "general greatness" spurred junior Kevin Cullen to eat McDonald's up to four times a week last year.

"He was one of the most personal and outgoing servicepeople that Duke has," Cullen said. "He put a fantastic face on McDonald's."

Perez has seen the location go through its ups and downs.

The destruction of the Bryan Center walkway "is killing us, especially at nighttime," Perez said.

Moreover, the release of Super Size Me, a film that chronicles the physical deterioration of a man who ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 consecutive days, made many people question the restaurant's commitment to nutrition.

The corporation added healthier items to the menu because of the film-but Perez said the most popular items are still hamburgers, fries and crispy chicken strips.

"Some people will order eight double cheeseburgers," Perez said, adding that he believes such eating habits are destructive no matter where the food is from.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Why would I eat three to four quarter-pounders if I know I would be full after one?'" he added.

Perez noted that he eats McDonald's food every day, and he is in perfectly healthy condition.