Merced County Times Newspaper
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Olive Garden Finally Opens At Merced Mall



Merced has been salivating for months anticipating the opening of the new Olive Garden restaurant on Olive Avenue near the end of the Merced Mall.

The Italian-American food chain opened its doors to flocks of would-be diners on Monday of this week.

We arrived well after the noon hour to find great numbers of hungry locals there ahead of us. The restaurant’s non-reservation policy was pushed to the limit with the unusually long wait-times. However, the busy staff handled the crowds with efficiency and aplomb, accommodating those not willing to linger 45 minutes or an hour for a table, with seating at the bar.

My wife, Peggy, and I were among those choosing to wait awhile for a more relaxing booth, where we could spread out with a couple of tall glasses of wine and work a crossword. Anticipating the delay on this day, we brought two puzzles.

As we watched people come and go, the friendly General Manager, Brent Foster, introduced himself and talked with us about the restaurant and his expectations for the day.

Foster has opened restaurants before, but this was his first Olive Garden. He said he was not surprised at the enthusiasm the people of Merced have evinced. More than once we heard people exclaim, “Now we don’t have to drive to Turlock anymore!”

When asked where home is, Foster answered, “Merced, or course. At least for the past few weeks.” He had been living in Stockton, until this opportunity opened up. Originally he hails from Missouri, until circumstances called him to California, where his brother lives. Then he went to work for the Olive Garden, and after a brief training stint in Orlando, Florida, where corporate headquarters is located, he moved to Merced.

The maximum capacity of the new restaurant is 279 bodies, according to a sign near the entrance, and on this day, it didn’t seem like anyone was counting. According to Foster, the establishment employs 180 people, and one assumes that takes into account all shifts. Since hiring began, 20 of those had already been cut loose for one reason or another.

During the opening day circus, employees rushed to and fro in their standard black uniforms, making sure every diner had their needs looked after. For many, the work was like nothing they had ever performed previously. Our young waitress, her name badge identifying her as Melani, confessed she had never taken a wine order before. Chardonnay was a foreign language to her. But, she was charming and eager to do well.

Foster also thrust himself into service, bringing entrees and condiments to customer tables, meeting and greeting as many customers as he could on this special day.

The food from the expansive menu was familiar Olive Garden fare—that is to say, not exotic, but served hot, well-seasoned, and tasty. The bread sticks and salad-bowl are a legendary tradition that lovers of the restaurant will recognize and enjoy.

When we left, we saw crowds gathered at the door, trying to beat the evening rush. We look forward to the weeks ahead, when the restaurant becomes simply one choice among many for Merced diners, where one can sip wine at the bar, and relax for just a short time while waiting for a table.

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