Eileen Kunkle, left, and Soledad "Sally" Willison share a laugh Tuesday morning at Village Inn of Craig, where they have worked for 30 years as a waitress and cook, respectively. "These two ladies have been a wonderful asset to our company," Ryan Rowley, Village Inn general manager, said at a surprise party for Kunkle and Willison on Monday night at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Eileen Kunkle, left, and Soledad "Sally" Willison share a laugh Tuesday morning at Village Inn of Craig, where they have worked for 30 years as a waitress and cook, respectively. "These two ladies have been a wonderful asset to our company," Ryan Rowley, Village Inn general manager, said at a surprise party for Kunkle and Willison on Monday night at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion.

30-year Village Inn employees recognized for service

Faces of dedication

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Soledad "Sally" Willison, left, and Eileen Kunkle, open gifts given to them for their 30 years of service at Village Inn of Craig at a surprise party Monday night at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion. Both employees received a Waring-brand chopper and grinder.

In September 1978, Eileen Kunkle made a promise.

Her husband's cousin had helped her get a job at Village Inn of Craig.

"The only thing she said is, 'Promise me you won't quit in three weeks,'" Kunkle said.

She agreed.

About a month later, Soledad "Sally" Willison started on at the restaurant as a cook.

She had moved to the U.S. eight years before, after meeting and marrying her husband, Bill, who was stationed at a U.S. Navy base in her homeland, the Philippines.

She had never cooked at a restaurant before.

Fast-forward 30 years.

Kunkle and Willison are seated across from each other at a table Monday night during a party at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion.

The gathering, which includes Village Inn employees and longtime customers, is held in Kunkle and Willison's honor, but they don't know it yet. After about 20 minutes, Ryan Rowley, Village Inn general manager, calls the audience's attention.

"These two ladies have been a wonderful asset to our company," Rowley said. "I couldn't ask for two more dedicated ladies."

In his estimation, Willison and Kunkle's dedication have made them exceptional employees.

"They truly care," he said. "It's not just a job for them."

Dedication, through good days and bad, is the quality that has kept them serving and cooking at the restaurant for three decades.

"I get irritated and upset like anyone else," Kunkle said Monday night, "but quit? No."

Willison took a similar stand.

"When I take a job : I never leave," she said.

Caring for customers

Kunkle still remembers her first day on the job.

"It was different," she said.

She started on a Sunday and, in 1978, Sundays were one of the busiest days at the restaurant. Sometimes the seating line stretched out the front door and onto the sidewalk, she said.

Nevertheless, she was determined to keep her promise.

Giving up has never been a part of Kunkle's work ethic.

"I think (of) what my dad told me a long, long time ago, that when you have a job, you go to it," she said.

At about 9 a.m. Tuesday, she quickly loaded her tray before darting out of the kitchen.

"I don't walk in a straight path," she said, as she deftly maneuvered around tables, chairs and booths. "I kind of weave."

Kunkle stopped briefly at tables, taking orders or delivering trays full of water, coffee and plates piled with chicken fried steak, eggs or toast.

Tuesday morning was relatively slow, she said, adding that she'd served nearly 20 people since starting her shift at 6 a.m. That number pales in comparison to one day during the Ride the Rockies bike tour in summer 2007.

On that day, she said, she served 234 people.

After waiting on Craig customers for 30 years, she's learned their likes and dislikes, their families and their lives.

Take, for instance, Jackie Chase and her daughter, Tammi Woods.

The mother-daughter pair come to Village Inn about five times a week. Woods has known Kunkle for about 20 years and by now, the latter knows that she likes to drink -usually water or soda pop - and how she likes her pancakes - with butter, no syrup.

"She's so, so friendly and always has a joke for you," Chase said.

As the family prepared to leave the restaurant Tuesday morning, Kunkle helped Woods' daughter, Kyanna, 7, hang a coloring sheet near the register.

"You guys have a merry Christmas," Kunkle said, as the family headed for the exit.

In addition to a work ethic instilled in her as a child, Kunkle's customers are the reason she's stuck with the restaurant for 30 years.

"The town of Craig has some good people in it," she said at the party Monday night. "It really does."

Has retirement ever crossed her mind?

"Lately, a lot of times," she said. "I'm getting old."

Many tasks, skills

Like Kunkle, Willison had a challenging task ahead of her when she signed on with Village Inn.

"The first day, I (didn't) like the guy I was working with," Willison said. "He (wanted) me to learn everything in one day.

"I told him, 'Give me two or three days, because : I learn easily.'"

These days, Willison takes care of whatever tasks she can, from preparing salads to cooking breakfast dishes.

"I do everything in the kitchen," she said.

On Tuesday morning, Willison emerged from a walk-in freezer in the restaurant's kitchen, her arms full with two heads of lettuce. Pieces of shredded lettuce waited to be washed in a nearby sink.

Her task: Preparing salads for lunch.

Willison opens most days at the restaurant, starting her shift at 5 a.m.

She also bakes up to 20 pies a day and helps cook meals, when necessary.

When she sends out plates she's prepared, she said she makes sure they look appealing.

"It helps the business," Willison added. "If the food presentation is nice, the people will come back."

Willison has no plans to hang in the towel anytime soon.

"I can retire right now if I wanted to," she said, adding that her husband has said he'd like her to slow down.

But she has no intention to slack her pace - at least, not now.

"I'm the independent (kind)," she said. "I don't depend on anybody.

"That's the way I am."

Bridget Manley can be reached at 875-1795 or bmanley@craigdailypress.com

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