Erin Gosselin tops off a drink with Coca-Cola before handing it to a server Thursday. Gosselin is a bartender at the Olive Garden Italian Restaurant on Clark Butler Boulevard.

While pouring another drink, Erin Gosselin, 56, tells her regulars she’s still figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up.

In high school, she thought of being an engineer or an architect.

She attended Stevens School of the Bible in her native state Massachusetts in the early 1980s.

For about two years she worked at an Orlando law firm.

Now, looking back on her 32 years with Olive Garden Italian Restaurant and 20 years as a bartender at the restaurant’s Gainesville branch, located at 2711 Clark Butler Blvd., she said she couldn’t be happier.

Gosselin could have been a school teacher like her older sister, Holly, 64, or a principal like her younger brother, Barry, 50. For a while, she thought her path would always end up at law school.

But working restaurants is unlike anything else, she said.

“You go home, and you’re tired, but you feel like you’ve done something,” she said. “You’ve fed all these people, you’ve entertained them, you get to know them. This is my second family. Being a lawyer, I couldn’t have done that.”

She said her job comes down to one thing.

It has little to do with the late-night sports marathons on the restaurant’s wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, the hundreds upon hundreds of flavored martinis she’s made or the elevator Italian jazz music Olive Garden plays on a loop every night.

All those things are great, she said. But it’s about family.

When she walks out of her Williston home every Monday through Thursday for her 4 to 11 p.m. shift, she said she’s trading one home for another.

She says goodbye to her two Great Danes, 1-year-old Jill and 7-year-old Nick, and her husband, Bob, 70.

Then, it’s hello to her Olive Garden family, to her manager and friend of 13 years, Amber Popp; the general manager, Justin Flanders; and her fellow servers and regular customers.

“I know people that have come in for years,” she said. “I may not remember their name, but once they start talking I’ll remember their drink and what they get to eat. It’s an adventure, every day is an adventure.”

Her longevity is a testament to how well Olive Garden treats its employees, said Popp, 32.

“People aren’t going to stick around 32 years if it’s a horrible place to work,” the Gainesville native said.

The three weeks vacation time Gosselin gets every year has also helped her and her husband keep close.

Even though they’re on opposite schedules — Erin working nights, and Bob, who retired after a 26 years with the Orange County Police Department, working two days a week at Winn-Dixie — they look forward to the times they can load up on Bob’s motorcycle and drive out across state lines.

They’ve traveled through all but 12 states together, they’ve hit every national park, six provinces of Canada and dipped their feet in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans together, Bob said.

In September 2015 they rode 7,800 miles in two weeks, traveling up Florida to Mount St. Helens to California and back home. He sees their vacation time together now as making up for time they missed together when he was an officer.

Even now in retirement, Bob supports his wife’s long career in the restaurant business. He said he’s never felt she should leave or retire early unless she wanted to. He’s even thought about taking up restaurant work himself to learn how to cook.

“Working for the Olive Garden is a respectable job, it’s never been anything other than a respectable place to work,” he said. “I wanted to go to work in the kitchen myself, cause I love food, I want to learn how to use all the fancy sauces they use to make it taste better.”

For Amanda and Huseyin Yesilbas, alcohol isn’t their thing.

Yet for the past 11 years, the couple has spent at least one night a week behind the bar counter.

Usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday at about 6 p.m., Amanda Yesilbas, 40, a Florida Virtual School employee, will pick Huseyin up from his programming job and go to Olive Garden.

They rarely need a menu; Gosselin will have their order ready within minutes of them walking in.

A pasta fagioli soup, full of steamy beef and beans, and breadsticks for Amanda. A cheese fonduta appetizer bowl for Huseyin. On occasion he’ll get a cappuccino with a splash of liquor.

Then, it’s usually an hour-to-90-minute chat between Amanda and Gosselin about everything from their pets to their shared passion of science fiction.

The bartender-patron pair has taken a photography course at Santa Fe College together, and Gosselin brings her 6-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, to Amanda’s homemade jewelry sales.

It’s a friendship born and bred at the counter.

“I don’t even remember what we began chatting about when we first met — she had Great Danes, I would’ve shown her my kittens,” Amanda said. “Erin is amazing, she’s become a real friend.”

Being behind the bar since 1997, Gosselin’s seen it all: rowdy customers, more and more cellphone use at the counter than strangers talking to one another.

The drinks themselves are different, she said.

One of her favorite drinks to make, the Old Fashioned — a cocktail made of whiskey, mashed sugar, sour flavoring and a slice of citrus — only attracts the older crowd. Nowadays, more people, especially the younger generation, go for fruitier, lighter drinks.

“Some of the things (back then) are more straight alcohol, like really hardcore, where now it’s more flavors.” she said, “We have more flavored beers, we have the flavored whiskeys, the flavored rums, the flavored vodkas. Things were not flavored back then.”

Changing with the times, she’s incorporated a new fruity drink into her favorites arsenal: the strawberry mango margarita, which she makes by adding a strawberry puree at the bottom of the glass and then pouring in frozen mango smoothie, pushing the puree upward in a swirl.

“I feel kind of like a mad scientist doing it,” she said.

Her whole life was in restaurants.

Her parents, Peggy and Danny, were always cooking as Gosselin grew up. They owned a bakery in Orlando before opening the mom-and-pop dinner spot Charis Hall Family Restaurant in Maryland in 1987.  

For years, whenever Gosselin visited her parents and younger siblings during a holiday break in college or on vacation from work, her dad usually had the same words ready as she walked in through the restaurant’s glass doors.

“Mom and I are going out,” he would say. “You’re in charge, let me know if you need any help.”

And just like that they would leave, either to escape the rush of the restaurant or have a date night.

Gosselin said she learned how to run a floor, talk to customers and bond with staff on busy nights.

Years after the restaurant closed down and long after her parents passed away in the early 2000s, she sees her mom and dad in herself as she stands behind the bar, still mixing drinks, providing a service to her customers: happiness, pleasure, comfort.

The restaurant business is a part of her, and she’s not letting go of it anytime soon, she said.

“It’s hard to describe when you’re in restaurants — it’s in your blood,” she said. You may want to try something else, but you always go back to the restaurant. There’s an excitement in the air. It’s an adventure.”

Staff Writer

David Hoffman is an investigative reporter for The Alligator. A rising UF history and economics senior, the 21-year-old lives and breathes for classy Parks and Recreation references and watching live performances of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on YouTube.