Raising a Village

Three employees celebrate 25 years with Village Inn

Troy DeRose ate almost every day at the Village Inn when he was growing up in Craig. Eileen Kunkle served enough of those meals to DeRose that he tells people that the waitress has handed him more plates than his mother.

"There's probably a couple of people who can say that," Kunkle said during a quick break from waitressing at the store known to regulars simply as the VI. "I've served people when they were kids, and now I serve their kids."

If Kunkle served DeRose hundreds of meals, then Severino "Nic" Nicolletto and Soledan "Sally" Willison had a hand is prepping a majority of those dishes.

All three were surprised Sept. 27 with a party at the Moffat County Pavilion celebrating 25 years of employment for Village Inn.

Nicolletto graduated from high school in 1940 and went to culinary school after his application to go to chef school in Switzerland was turned down. He was drafted shortly after he graduated from the culinary school.

"I joined the Navy, because I sure as hell didn't want to sleep in a fox hole," he said. "Then, when they found out I was a cook, they made sure my papers went through."

He spent time on five different ships in World War II.

After the war, he worked in Pennsylvania as a caterer.

In 1978, he took a job at Village Inn in Cherry Creek. Afterward, he moved around the Midwest and West in the Village Inn organization.

"The management really took a liking to me," he said. "They sent me around to teach others."

Once Nicolletto arrived in Craig, he also helped cook and prepare buffets for the Cosgriff Hotel in Craig.

"One of my favorites things is to makes ice and sugar sculptures," he said. "I made a moving oil well and an operating ski lift out of sugar."

The chef was put in charge of the food accounts of the restaurants he worked for.

"I know Village Inn's food accounts by heart," he said. "I'll probably never forget how to order the best food for the least amount of money."

Some of Nicolletto's favorite memories were getting to know what his regular customers wanted to eat.

"When I worked in Missouri, there was an old Scottish fella who came in and ordered the same thing every day," he said. "I would have his meal to him before he sat down."

The kitchen veteran also takes great pride in his ability to make a meal do more than just taste good.

"People eat with their eyes," he said. "If it looks good, it tastes good."

Nicolletto unofficially retired from the Craig restaurant in August, but he said he isn't sure whether he's done.

"The doctors put me on some medicine that made it so I couldn't work," he said. "At the dinner, some of them mentioned that I had taught them a lot. So I guess if I can't come back, there will still be a part of me back in the kitchen."

Willison moved to Craig with her husband after he retired from military service. She started at the Craig Village Inn on Oct. 9, 1979.

Her first job was washing dishes and she was promoted to food preparation, or "the line."

"Nic taught me a lot when I was on the line," she said. "He is a good man who knows a lot."

Willison soon found her specialty.

"I like making everything, but I'm better at the pies," she said.

She then got up and went to look at the pie rack.

"I didn't make those pies," she said. "They are the all the same kinds, but I can tell it's not mine."

Nicolletto said he had heard many regional supervisors say that Willison made the best pies in the company.

Willison said there was no secret to making them; she simply takes care to make sure each one is special.

She still works four days a week.

"It has its good and bad days," she said. "It doesn't pay a lot, but it is a lot of fun. Too many people want to make big money and don't have fun. This town isn't a lot about big money."

The interview was during Kunkle's shift. She answered questions while a meal was being prepared for one of her tables.

"It's not often that I'm sitting on the job," she said. "Don't tell my boss."

Kunkle started on Sept. 26, 1979.

She joined the Village Inn staff when a relative told her about the job.

"I guess it sounded like a good idea at the time," she said.

Twenty-five years later, she cherishes the special customers whom she has waited on.

"The regulars are like extended family," she said. "They are why I've been able to stay here for 25 years."

Of all the meals she has brought to people, Kunkle said chicken fried steak and eggs or biscuits and gravy were probably the most popular.

She said the busiest she ever saw the restaurant was when Craig hosted the Silver Bullet races. It was a dune buggy race, and its customers brought $5,000 worth of business in eight ours to the restaurant.

Before she could answer any more questions, the food was ready and Kunkle cut the interview short.

The restaurant closed last Monday for the surprise celebration.

"It was a total surprise to me," Willison said. "My husband and I came by, and it was closed. We drove around for awhile, and then he took me to the pavilion."

Former co-workers and people from the Village Inn headquarters made the trip to Northwest Colorado.

Nicolletto received a watch while the women received earrings, among other things.

The party didn't mark the end of Willison's and Kunkle's careers.

"I'll probably retire one day from here," Willison said.

"Sometime you've go to go spend all the money you earned here," Kunkle added.

During their time working in the shadow of the orange and black Village Inn sign, coffee has gone from 40 cents a cup to $1.29, but some things haven't changed.

"The people stay the same," Kunkle said. "That's why I'm still here."

It's safe to assume the people who keep coming back for chicken fried stake and eggs probably feel the same way about the three golden employees.

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