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Plymouth Place dining boss started as teenage server

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 5:50 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:55 p.m. CST

LA GRANGE PARK – Nicolle Heydorn started working in Plymouth Place’s dining department as a server when she was a student at Lyons Township High School.

She and a few friends were looking for part-time jobs, and they were hired. Heydorn couldn’t imagine at the time that she would still be at Plymouth Place today – 14 years later – settling in to hew new role as the director of dining services for Sodexo, the food services company that serves about 1,200 meals a day to the 400 or so residents at Plymouth Place.

“She has been kind of the poster child for how people can succeed,” said Dale Lilburn, Plymouth Place’s CEO. “She’s really worked hard, and she now has a big job.”

In her new position, Heydorn oversees about 60 employees – including many high school students – in addition to the dining operation’s budget, personnel, cooking, catering and customer service. The last responsibility is one of the most important parts of the job, Heydorn said.

“I really like getting to know the customers, [and] getting to know their likes and dislikes,” Heydorn said. “The staff, before they even sit down, know what they’re going to order. They could bring them half their meal.”

Taking care of residents is Heydorn’s most enjoyable part of the job, and it’s what made her change her major from meteorology to hospitality and tourism during college. She attended several schools, but graduated from Roosevelt University in 2008.

Although her new job involves administrative duties, Heydorn said she likes to spend about 40 percent of her time with the residents to find out what they need. Sometimes that’s as easy as helping residents bring their lunch to their room if they’re having a bad day.

“It’s amazing the things you can do to make the residents happy,” Heydorn said. “It’s overwhelming to be able to make so many people happy at the same time.”

There’s nobody at Plymouth Place who doesn’t know Heydorn, Lilburn said. Not only because she’s been working there for almost 15 years – Lilburn and Heydorn started at Plymouth Place at almost the exact same time – but she also makes an effort to interact with the residents.

“You can’t help but like her,” Lilburn said. “She’s direct, which is good. And she made it clear that she really liked doing what she did, or does.”

Having someone as relatable as Heydorn is important for Plymouth Place’s dining services staff, who interact with residents at least a few times each day.

“We have that contact with the residents, whereas a lot of other departments don’t see the residents on a daily basis,” Heydorn said. “ … If something’s not right, we’re usually the first to know, because we see them so often.”

The dining room is also the place where residents most often see each other, making the tone set there by Heydorn and her staff crucial.

“It brings people together,” said Allyson Zak, Plymouth Place’s director of development and public relations, “and the social component is really important as people age.”

The residents tend to treat the dining staff like family. They know who’s going to prom with whom, who’s going to college where, who’s playing sports and so on. And the face of the operation they know is Heydorn’s.

“I wish I had 10 of her,” Lilburn said. “It’d be a really easy job then.”

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