This has been a bad week for Olive Garden. First, its new "Never Ending Pasta Pass" promo has been poked at -- or outright kicked -- by almost everyone on earth (Jimmy Kimmel's poke was particularly hilarious) and then Olive Garden investor Starboard Value slaps the chain with a nearly 300-page book on how the company is fucking up everything they possibly could -- and at least some of the problems reported are legit.
Here's a list of the top five ways that Olive Garden needs to get its act together. Get your poop in a group, Olive Garden!
5. Stop selling shitty booze -- or at least be real about it.
The Starboard slide-show manifesto bluntly points out that Olive Garden takes in a measly 8 percent of its sales from alcohol, while other Italian chains more than double that number.The Starboardians have suggestions for improvement, such as advertising the fact that OGeven sells booze, adding more craft beers, training staff to sell more alcoholic beverages, hiring sommeliers for busy stores, and offering better happy-hour specials.
Okay, so perhaps the first two are legit, but the underlying problem with Olive Garden alcohol sales is that the house wine is overpriced swill a step down from even Two-Buck Chuck (the servers are probably embarrassed to push it on customers), and no self-respecting sommelier without gambling debts or mental issues would take an OG job. As far as an improved happy hour, Olive Garden couldn't give away the even-more-overpriced house froufrou cocktails that make up most of the bar menu.
My tip? Drop the prices or raise the quality, and since OG isn't known for quality, just drop the prices.
4. Olive Garden's television ads are lame.
The whole cheesy-ass "When you're here, you're family" advertising dreck was awful from the jump, and it's a good thing investors had the himmy-hoos to point that out to OG, because somebody needed to get slapped out of the nineties. But the big question here is what to replace it with? What sort of television ads would authentically represent what the chain is about and why people should pay to eat there?
If it were up to me, I'd run far fewer ads, but they would be tragically honest and do what Olive Garden does best: appeal to the folks who want a wackload of cheap pasta and breadsticks and are lightweight drinkers who can't tell a fine vintage from a bucket of bathtub gin.
And for good measure, bring in a celeb spokesperson, someone who appeals to the masses -- like Paul Reiser (he's probably free at the moment).
3. Maybe pick quantity over quality?
The quickly-infamous "Never Ending Pasta Pass" that Olive Garden debuted last week (the passes sold out in under an hour) is a perfect example of the chain getting something right: understanding and exploiting American consumers' insatiable lust for everything they want fast, cheap and unlimited. It's adorable but ridiculous when Olive Garden takes steps to front like it's fine dining, but it's doubtful anyone buys it. Embracing its lowbrow-but-accurate identity with the pasta-pass promo has gotten the desired attention. Hopefully this promo will spawn similar offers.
Yes, offering diners a children's wading pool filled with noodles and a jug of house hooch is an idea as tacky as all cattywampus, but it's as close to an honest deal as OG has presented in a long time.
2. Quit frontin'--and move toward fast-casual.
Olive Garden has had an ongoing and detrimental identity crisis starting sometime in the late eighties and getting more intense in the nineties; today the chain is foundering because dining trends appear to be moving in the direction of fast-casual and pretty far from the pseudo-casual dining trend into which the chain has sunk its time and money. The fancy server uniforms, the costly store renovations, and the back-to-Italy makeovers that project an image of the chain being finer than frog hair has unfortunately ended up being a huge waste. But it's not too late to strip down, get real and make its frustrated investors some wads of dough.
Olive Garden: Scrape the fake-Tuscan countryside motif out of your stores, let your servers wear crew shirts and jeans, ditch the bougie dinnerware and attitudes, experiment with fast-casual dining, and see what happens this time next year with sales.
1. Streamline the soup, salad and breadsticks -- but don't screw with them.
The most shocking recommendation to come out of the Starboard report is that Olive Garden desperately needs to make changes to the signature soups, salad and breadsticks (especially the breadstick part). The investment company wants OG to stop making its soups from scratch and "bring the base in and add a few ingredients in the restaurant," shrink salad sizes and dressing portions (putting bottles on the tables instead), and give out fewer breadsticks -- like one per person at a time (the horror!!!).
So, about the homemade soups: Yeah, OG should disregard this dreadful advice, because the soups are actually some of the few menu items that aren't pre-made. While it's true that unlimited servings mean that customers suck down the soups with impunity, Starboard thinks no one will notice the difference -- but I betcha a solid groin-grab that they will. As for the salads, leaving bottles of the deliciously salty, addictive Italian dressing on the tables will likely cause dressing use to skyrocket rather than plummet. But this matter of over-serving salads and breadsticks is directly connected to the 800-lb manicotti in the room: the waitstaff has insufficient incentive to follow the rules.
Servers are supposed to bring out less food more frequently, but they don't -- because they get paid peanuts and raisins. The fewer trips they have to make, the better they can serve as many tables as possible at one time. This actually sucks for both customers and servers; the company needs to pony up for better wages and stop skirting health care requirements by cutting staff to part-time, thus offering the needed incentives for service staff to toe the line.
Will either the investors or Olive Garden beat feet to make this change happen? I think they would rather poop in a group than pay their employees better.
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