C&B Notes

Olive Garden Wisdom

Buried in a reflection that may be a tad overwrought, the author of this Olive Garden “review” hits on an enduring truth.  Olive Garden’s success lies in its ability to fulfill the needs of its core consumer — not by making world class food but rather by delivering a consistent experience and a preferred list of ingredients (packaged in a myriad of ways) at a good value. This underlying point also explains JCPenney’s Ron Johnson-led pivot, which failed miserably, away from what customers expect — continual deep discounts off of “list price.”

The well-paid suits who run Olive Garden have tried, many times, to breathe new life into their chain, and it always backfires spectacularly.  They’ve flirted with small plates, they put kale and polenta on the menu, they recently started slicing the breadsticks down the middle and making sandwiches out of them.  Most tables and bar seats have little unobtrusive video screens on which customers can hail their server for a refill, or pay $1.99 to test their trivia knowledge against other players who allegedly are real, but almost certainly are not.  At most locations, the fake olive plants with their twisty branches have already been chucked in the trash, the walls have been un-stuccoed, and the chairs have been stripped of their exquisitely smooth-rolling wheels.  By next year, they’ll all be gone.

Every time Olive Garden tries to freshen its image, to move away from its cultural role as a punchline for faux authenticity and mediocre mall food, everything collapses.  Nobody wants to eat kale at Olive Garden.  Nobody wants garlic hummus.  We want soup and salad and unlimited breadsticks, we want never-ending bowls of pasta with a variety of sauces, we want giant glasses full of Coke and tiny wine glasses full of plonky reds and fruity whites.  Just about the only stunt Olive Garden has ever pulled that’s been successful — and it’s been a raging success, an astounding, nearly unbelievable one — has been the Pasta Pass.  For $100, you can buy a card that entitles you to seven weeks of unlimited unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and unlimited never-ending pasta bowls. Or you could buy it, if you were one of the 22,000 people who managed to snatch them up before they sold out in one second. One. Second.  That’s how much no one cares if Olive Garden serves kale.

Darden, the company that owns Olive Garden, is publicly traded, and in the last two years, the stock has been steadily on the rise.  This may be because in 2014, a hedge fund with a significant stake in the company delivered a 294-page treatise outlining all the ways Olive Garden was getting in the way of its own success, including giving away too much bread, not pushing enough alcohol, and overly dressing the salads.  But I think the real lesson isn’t buried in a PowerPoint deck, it’s right there in the wild success of the Pasta Pass: Olive Garden’s biggest asset is, in fact, that none of the attempts to make it better are working.  All the stunts and menu revamps and dining room redesigns are met by diners with indifference at best, and outright hostility at worst.  Inevitably Darden retreats and regroups, falling back on the only thing that ever reliably gets people in the door: pasta, a lot of it, cheaply, with soup and salad and breadsticks, and a vague veneer of Italy.


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