Olive garden

Unlimited Constructive Criticism: The New Olive Garden Policy

By now you might have seen the news about Olive Garden and the bread stick policy.  If you haven’t here’s a quick run down:  Starboard Value, which owns 8.8% of Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden Restaurants released a very critical 294 page document to the public detailing the short comings of the Olive Garden brand and practices.  The part that everyone seems to be focused on is the part about “No more unlimited bread sticks”.  While this is partially true, if you read the report, what it actually says is something more like: “Don’t bring all the unlimited bread sticks out at the same time, they tend to not taste as good after they’ve been sitting for 7 minutes.  Bring them out one or two at a time and then keep them coming as requested.”   So it’s not about being stingy, it’s about serving quality food.  Another choice quote was critical of the Olive Garden practice of not adding salt to the water while boiling the pasta noodles: “If you Google how to make pasta 101, the first step is to salt the water”  the Starboard Value report said.

Another key point (of many) was the alcohol and wine in particular.  Olive Garden alcohol sales amount to only 8% of sales while other chain restaurants like Macaroni Grill are significantly higher – in the 15-20% range.  Alcohol is profitable.  There’s no getting around that. Sell more alcohol, make more money.

My insight on the low alcohol sales:  The wine list is not good.  I’ve been there and tasted the wine, and it’s almost undrinkable.  Not that Olive Garden needs to start stocking high end wine, but just a few labels that people recognize and flavor profiles that lend themselves to being paired with the food they serve would be good.  The wines I tried a few years back were terribly astringent, flat and generally very unpleasant.  There are a lot of wines out there that are rated 90 points plus which retail for under $10 a bottle.  They need not limit themselves to Italian wines, just wines that go with the food.

One last thing I wish Olive Garden, and chain restaurants in general, had more of is Gluten Free options.  It’s not like its 1999 and these products are super pricey and hard to come by.  I can get gluten free corn based pasta in Super Target, so Olive Garden and others should have the ability to prepare gluten free pasta.  Think PF Chang’s.

See the report for yourself: http://shareholdersfordarden.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Transforming-Darden.pdf



Wine tasting at the Olive Garden Restaurant

FCC Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely mine. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Olive Garden invited me to this event, offering gift certificates for my readers and me to experience the newly updated location, but that does not impact my views or opinions in any way.

Last week I was invited to attend my local Olive Garden as they showcased their new Tuscan themed makeover.  I have eaten at this particular restaurant once before about 7 or 8 years ago and cannot remember what it looked like before the makeover.  I arrived at 6pm on the day that the Phoenix metro area was pounded by severe thunderstorms and was surprised to see quite a few people inside.   The first thing I noticed was behind the greeter station there was a bistro styled bar.  Complete with high tables and chairs and a sort of circular wall around it.  The actual restaurant seating was around the corner, but I found this to be new and appealing, welcoming.  I was seated and greeted by the friendly staff and was assigned a personal server.  I’m not sure if that was because I was carrying a clip board and asked for a spit container, I doubt it.  I quickly tasted the wines and wrote down some notes.

The wines:

Sartori Family 2009 Pinot Grigio, Delle Venezie Italy. Light with lemon notes, 12% alcohol and $6.65 a glass

Mandra Rossa 2008 Fiano, sicily. 13.5% alcohol, $6.35 a glass.  This wine was also light and fruity, like a light unoaked Chardonnay.  Which is interesting because typically the Fiano grape is quite intense.

Arancio Nero d’Avola, Sicily. 13.5% alcohol, $6.35 a glass.  Nero d’Avola used to be primarily a mixing component but has come into its own in more recent times.  This wine really reminded me of a lot of the Arizona wines I have tasted.  Smokey oak, almost campfire or more like your clothes smell the morning after sitting next to the campfire all night.  Mixed with a rather aggressive unripe red cherry fruit.

Rocca delle Macie, SaSyr, Tuscany.  This wine is a blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Syrah.  13.5% alcohol and $8.25 a glass.  This wine is full bodied and the most complex of the lot with a mix of cherry blackberry and raspberry.  At first I really liked this wine, I suppose compared to the others, so I ordered a glass with my dinner – spaghetti with meat sauce.  Unfortunately this was a bad pairing.  I could only drink half the glass.  The spaghetti itself was lacklustre I have to say.   While I was eating I perused the wine list and noticed what I would call the most infamous wine list I have ever seen including  Cavit, Woodbridge, two kinds of pink zinfandel and Riunite.  At this point I started to wonder what the new Tuscan thing was all about.  The wine snob in me was horrified.    Something else that caught my attention was the odd  wine prices. It’s not that common to see  wines by the glass for $6.65 or $6.35.  Usually wines by the glass are priced at $6, $7 or $8 or higher in nice round numbers.  On second thought, this past month I have eaten at BLT at the Marriott, Morton’s the steakhouse and FnB Scottsdale, so maybe I shouldn’t be holding a family restaurant like Olive Garden to the same standard.  That might be like someone holding me to the same standard as Wine Spectator!

However, I will say this: the staff was extremely friendly.  They really went out of their way to attend to everyone’s needs, full marks on the service.

p.s. since the winner of the $25 gift certificate failed to claim their prize it is up for grabs again…