10 Facts You Might Not Know About Olive Garden

iStock
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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

iStock.com/bhofack2
iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

'Turkey on the Table' Helps You Give Thanks—and Fight Hunger

Turkey on the Table
Turkey on the Table

Between planning a menu and figuring out how to thaw a 20-pound turkey in 48 hours, hosts may not have time to think about much else this Thanksgiving. But Turkey on the Table is a little something extra that's worth the effort: It's a fun way to get guests thinking about what they're grateful for—and it may lead to a new tradition for you and your family.

Turkey on the Table can be displayed in your foyer, on your dining room table, or in any other visible spot in your home. It comes with paper "feathers" with room for you and your guests to each jot down what you're grateful for this year. After filling out a feather, add it to the back of the turkey and keep going until the bird is fully dressed.

You can do this with members of your household, adding one new thing you're grateful for each day leading up to Thanksgiving, or wait until the actual holiday and have your guests fill out the feathers and read them aloud before enjoying the meal. Turkey on the Table—the brainchild of two moms who wanted to teach their young children the importance of gratitude—encourages you to make the activity your own, whether you're using it at home, at work, or in the classroom.

In addition to a knit turkey, a marker, and 13 feathers, each Turkey on the Table kit comes with a picture book telling the story of the tradition. The $40 purchase also provides 10 meals for people in need through Feeding America, the country's largest hunger relief organization. The organization has donated more than 834,000 meals since its inception in 2014, and is aiming to reach 1 million meals in 2018.

Turkey on the Table kits, as well as replacement feathers, can be purchased on the organization's website, at major retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond, or via Amazon.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER