HARLINGEN — The Diamond Club trophy with a gaudy cut-glass gemstone replica is engraved with the name of Olive Garden General Manager Nina Elder.
She becomes one of just 42 top-performing Olive Garden GMs to win the prestigious trophy.
But Elder insists her award cannot be considered without acknowledging another trophy plaque, the one hanging in the Olive Garden lobby.
It reads: “For flawlessly executing on our Purpose Through Ownership Mentality and the drive to win … 2016 Diamond Club Team.”
That team of hers numbers about 115 employees, ranging from kitchen and bar staff to servers, hostesses and more.
“The team really takes care of the guests, they take pride in what they do,” Elder said.
And to think, just seven years ago last week, she was a server at an Olive Garden in Houston.
“After that I became a manager in Houston, and worked there for three years and then this next week will mark exactly two years with Olive Garden in Harlingen as general manager,” Elder said.
Olive Garden is not among the fast-expanding, fast-casual restaurant movement. With a full bar and sit-down dining, it’s more in the casual restaurant class, Elder says.
Casual or not, the restaurant business can be tough work, and Elder said that’s what her parents insisted on when she was growing up.
“I started when I was 14 working in mom-and-pop restaurants in Kansas,” she recalled. “My parents always just said, ‘You’ve got to make a living.’ “
First she had to make it to Kansas.
“I am originally adopted from Russia, so you will hear my accent a little bit,” she says with a laugh. “I was 12 and got adopted in Kansas with my sister.
“It was pretty cool for us to get adopted at the ages of 12 and 9 because most people won’t adopt you when you’re that age,” because of a bias toward younger children and babies, she said.
“We were very fortunate in my family,” she said. “My mom in Kansas couldn’t have any kids so her and my dad adopted us. They actually live in Houston now, and my sister lives there as well.
“I love Harlingen, because I come from a small town.”
And since the Harlingen dining community has been supportive of Olive Garden, she says Olive Garden has tried to give back.
The Harlingen restaurant, located at 1802 W. Lincoln Ave., has been a big supporter of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, and often reaches out with what they call “Hospi Runs,” she said.
“We deliver like a lunch for 20 on us, and we’ll do chambers of commerce, fire departments, police departments, hospitals, and we make a lot of school donations, just to support our community,” Elder said.
Her commitment to the best possible dining experience for restaurant-goers hasn’t gone unnoticed at the top, either.
“Nina embodies our belief at Olive Garden that everyone who walks through our doors should be treated like family — from our guests to our team members,” said company President Dave George. “She demonstrates outstanding leadership of her restaurant as well as a passion for the Harlingen community, and I am proud to have her represent Olive Garden.”