10 Facts You Might Not Know About Olive Garden

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iStock

Americans have a love-hate relationship with Olive Garden. But where else can you get unlimited refills on soup, pasta, and those baskets of crave-worthy breadsticks?

1. ORLANDO WAS THE TEST SITE FOR THE FIRST OLIVE GARDEN.

image of General Mills factory
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General Mills—yes, the company that makes cereal and cinnamon rolls—launched the Italian chain in late 1982. Called The Olive Garden, the first Italian eatery of its kind cropped up in Orlando. Within seven years, the chain had close to 150 restaurants and a cult breadstick following. In 1995, General Mills created Darden Restaurants, Inc., which now owns the restaurant chain. With 840 locations, Darden claims Olive Garden is the "largest chain of Italian-themed restaurants" in the U.S.

2. OLIVE GARDEN AND RED LOBSTER TRIED THAT COMBO RESTAURANT THING—SORT OF.

image of the exterior of a Red Lobster restaurant
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The sister restaurants were at one time owned by Darden Restaurants and operated with some of the same business ideas. While Red Lobster offered endless seafood promotions, Olive Garden became known for its unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks deal, along with its unlimited pasta promos. In 2011, Darden considered joining both restaurants into one location to expand profits while cutting expenses, and six combination Olive Garden-Red Lobster restaurants were born. Unlike other combination eateries, both restaurants shared one building and one kitchen, but had separate entrances, dining rooms and menus (so much for ordering a lobster with your unlimited breadsticks). Darden sold Red Lobster in 2014 and all combination locations were either closed or renovated to house only Olive Gardens.

3. PEOPLE GOT AMPED FOR THOSE $100 PASTA PASSES.

image of a bowl of spaghetti with meatballs
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In 2014, Olive Garden ran a promotion-turned-craze that gave customers the chance to eat as much as they wanted for $100: the Neverending Pasta Pass. Each pass permitted unlimited pasta, soup, salad and breadsticks for seven weeks. On opening day for the passes, Olive Garden lovers crashed the site; in 2015, passes sold out in one second. Angry Olive Garden fans took to the web to lament not getting a pass, and fakes cropped up on Ebay, some selling as high as $300. Weeks after the Pasta Passes were sold, several customers reported eating as many as 100 meals at the restaurant. A clergyman in North Carolina referred to himself as the "Pasta Passtor" with the hopes of eating $1800 in Olive Garden food before his pass expired. He ended the seven weeks having eaten 115 total meals.

4. THOSE UNLIMITED PROMOTIONS ARE THE WORST FOR SERVERS.

image of a meal of salad and spaghetti and meatballs that you might find at Olive Garden
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An Olive Garden server told Cosmopolitan that the worst thing about working at the restaurant was its main appeal: the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks. The amount of refills of all three items, plus drinks, is pretty hectic. But the low price means servers don't receive big tips for all the carb-loading they've helped you through.

5. THE TUSCAN COOKING SCHOOL ISN'T REAL … OR IS IT?

image of a street in Tuscany, Italy
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Olive Garden supposedly trains its chefs and upper management at a Tuscan cooking school—or so say its commercials. But previous employees have said the Culinary Institute of Tuscany isn't what it seems. In 2011, a Reddit poster claimed to have attended the supposed cooking school, but said attendees spent more time sightseeing and exploring Tuscany than learning how to cook authentic Italian food. "The only time we saw the 'chef' was when she made a Bolognese sauce while taking pictures with each of us to send to our local newspapers," the former manager wrote. CNN determined that Olive Garden does send its chefs and managers to a Tuscan restaurant/bed-and-breakfast, but there isn't an official school, per se. The final verdict? Olive Garden does send employees on trips to Italy, but what they do and learn there may not live up to the cooking school claims.

6. SOME OLIVE GARDEN INVESTORS TRIED TO LIMIT THE UNLIMITED BREADSTICKS.

image of a basket of garlic breadsticks
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Olive Garden came under fire in 2014 for serving what investors believed were excessively generous portions of breadsticks. Starboard Value, an investor in the Italian chain, sent Olive Garden executives a 300-slide presentation citing everything it hated about the restaurant [PDF]. One of those points targeted the 675 million breadsticks Olive Garden serves annually. Starboard Value claimed the breadsticks only lasted seven minutes before becoming stale, leading to a lot of waste—and then compared the restaurant's beloved appetizer to hotdog buns. The investor's solution was to serve only one breadstick per person (unless customers asked for more) with the hopes of saving $5 million annually. Intense pushback ensured Olive Garden's offer of unlimited breadsticks remained the same, but Darden found other ways of cutting costs. Like, for instance, only cleaning its carpets once per month.

7. PASTACHETTI? SOFFATELLI? THEY'RE NOT AUTHENTIC ITALIAN FOODS.

image of grilled chicken alfredo
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A 1999 Olive Garden campaign promoted the restaurant as the place you'd want to take your Italian (or Italian food-loving) family for authentic meals. But some of those menu items aren't all that Italian after all. In 2011, the restaurant admitted some of its menu items took a cue from Italian chefs, but wouldn't be found in traditional cookbooks or Italian restaurants. Surprisingly, a Public Policy poll found that 39 percent of Americans think Olive Garden is as authentic as Italian food comes. Still, chicken alfredo ranks as Olive Garden's most-ordered dish, so despite being Americanized, the chain must be doing something right.

8. WHEN IT COMES TO NEW DISHES, BREADSTICKS ARE KING.

another picture of garlic breadsticks next to a small bowl of marinara sauce
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Although its meals may not be what you'd expect from an authentic Italian dining experience, Olive Garden has created some Tuscan-inspired dishes. In an effort to attract more foodies, Olive Garden briefly introduced a pear and gorgonzola ravioli and a baked pasta romana. While both dishes were a flop with customers (they weren't "cravable" enough), anything with breadsticks almost always gets a free pass. Olive Garden's breadstick sandwiches, which sport chicken parmigiana or meatballs between two breadsticks, were an unexpected win for the chain. In this case, Olive Garden investors might be right—the breadsticks are sort of like a hotdog bun.

9. THE SECRET MENU IS ESSENTIALLY ANYTHING YOU WANT.

image of a mushroom ravioli
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One of Olive Garden's perks is the variety of menu items. But if you aren't finding exactly what you want—say, a discontinued menu item—there's a chance you can hack your order. Secret menu sites report that it's still possible to order the discontinued Chicken Fettuccine Florentine (so long as the chef has all the necessary ingredients). Many secret menu suggestions aren't all that secret, they’re simply substitutions for standard menu items that many people don't know are possible, like changing ravioli fillings. Love dessert but hate chocolate sauce? Mention that to your server and you may have the option of a raspberry sauce.

10. A GRAND FORKS COLUMNIST BECAME FAMOUS FOR HER OLIVE GARDEN REVIEW.

image of Anthony Bourdain
Frederick M. Brown/Stringer, Getty Images

A Grand Forks, North Dakota, food columnist became an overnight sensation thanks to her review of an Olive Garden. Marilyn Hagerty, an 88-year-old reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, covered a newly opened location and gave it a gushing review. Likely because of the chain's love-hate relationship with foodies, her article went viral. "All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks," she wrote. "The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese." Her review spread across the internet and attracted the attention of well-known food personalities, including chef Anthony Bourdain, who offered Hagerty a book deal and wrote the foreword, calling her critiques the "antidote to snark." And, like many Olive Garden fans, Hagerty returned for more; after the release of the chain's breadstick sandwiches, she wrote a follow-up review. Even food reporters can't say no to those breadsticks.

This story was originally published in 2016.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

iStock/MarkSwallow
iStock/MarkSwallow

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of wine. Here, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma, spills some of the best. Here are a few things you might not know about wine.

1. Digital eyes are everywhere in today's vineyards.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like army bases—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. 

2. Modern vineyards also bury a lot of cow skulls. 

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. Ferocious foliage is a vintner's secret weapon.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. Roses in a vineyard are the wine country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. 

Vintners plant roses among their vines because the flowers get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. Birds of prey help protect the grapes.

Glasses of red wine and charcuterie
iStock/Natalia Van Doninck

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. Small bugs become big problems in wine tasting rooms.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bug-eating predators are fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. Wine needs to be filtered. 

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. (Unwanted compounds in the wine bind with the fining agents so they can be filtered and removed.) Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. Wine is ever so slightly radioactive (that's a good thing).

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. MRIs can determine the fine from the funk.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. Wines can be aged instantly.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

Taco Bell is Opening a Taco-Themed Hotel in Palm Springs This Summer

Taco Bell Corp.
Taco Bell Corp.

For some, having a Taco Bell and its cheese-filled menu within driving distance is enough. For others, only a Taco Bell destination vacation will do. This August, the popular fast food chain is going to convert an existing Palm Springs, California, hotel into a burrito-filled Taco Bell getaway for a limited time.

The Bell Hotel will have all the usual amenities—rooms, food, gifts, and a salon—operating with a taco-themed cosmetic facelift. The nail salon, for example, will feature Taco Bell-inspired nail art. (Though we're not entirely sure what that consists of—possibly nails that resemble hot sauce packets.) The gift shop will feature Taco Bell apparel. Guests can also enjoy the standard variety of Taco Bell menu items. According to Thrillist, some new additions to their line-up are expected to be unveiled.

The as-yet-undisclosed hotel in Palm Springs will be operating as a Taco Bell partner for five nights total. As with pop-up stores and other publicity campaigns, the expectation is that guests will share their bizarre Taco Bell resort experience on social media and create some buzz around the brand. Taco Bell is no stranger to audacious marketing, as in the case of their Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas, which books weddings. Recently, the company also began making home deliveries via GrubHub.

The Bell Hotel website is now accepting sign-ups so fans can be notified when reservations open. The facility is expected to open August 9.

[h/t CNBC]

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