It was the first day of training for the new Olive Garden opening in Harrisonburg, VA, and I was nervous. Surrounded by 40 new service team members, I started training. As each dish arrived from the kitchen, we discussed the menu items and key ingredients, passing the plates throughout the group. More people joined, and everyone was engaged. It was my best training ever. Something had clicked, and I had my a-ha moment.
Several months later, I’m being interviewed by a member of the Employee Communications team at Darden’s Restaurant Support Center in Orlando, FL, where I was training to become a manager. She wants to know about my career path and how I got here. I’m nervous, again, but feeling empowered by the passionate people I met during my training. One of Darden’s core values is written on the wall behind us: “Always Learning, Always Teaching.” I wrote these words once, years ago, when asked what I wanted to be remembered for. When I saw those words again in Orlando, I knew I was in the right place.
For 19 years, nearly half my life, I’ve worked for Olive Garden. I started as a server in Richmond, VA, and later moved into training other team members. I first attended college in hopes of becoming a mechanical engineer. However, a couple of years into college, I found myself thinking about classic literature and needing more creativity. I changed my major to English, planning to write or teach.
All this time, I had become a good server, comfortable connecting with guests at Olive Garden. I loved training new servers and enjoyed my work. I considered interacting with all the different types of personalities a test of my ability to teach and lead people. I would use these skills as an educator, and these people’s stories would find their way into my writing. But there was one thing I could not deny: The foodservice industry is about making people happy, and I loved that feeling and took pride in it.
I had been asked to become a manager before and humbly declined. I wanted to be a writer or a rock star or something else, maybe, but not a manager. Yet Olive Garden had given me many gifts. I met my wife and my closest friends through the brand.
Two years ago, Director of Operations Nate Niccum asked me again why I wasn’t a manager. I told him some of my story: My 10-year-old son had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy earlier that year, and I had needed to focus on my family. Olive Garden provided amazing, loving support during that stressful time, and our employee giving program, Darden Dimes, gave me a grant to help when I missed work.
Thankfully, my son is fine now, so when I was offered an opportunity to help open that Olive Garden in Harrisonburg, I jumped at the chance. Over an intense three weeks, I did my absolute best and saw the results. Jenn Deck, Olive Garden’s manager of new restaurant openings, told me she admired my spirit. Among some of the smartest, most positive, passionate people I had ever known, I felt like I belonged.
A month later, I’m on my hands and knees, cleaning a floor drain in the kitchen. In walks Nate. He asks, “When are you going to get off the sidelines and into the game? What’s stopping you?” I said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing. What’s the next step?”
I surprised myself. It took almost 20 years, but finally I was ready, and every step of the process confirmed I had made the right choice. From the assessment and interviews to the training in Orlando and at my restaurant, I was right where I belonged — a proud service manager with Olive Garden in Richmond.