10 Facts You Might Not Know About Olive Garden
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.
General Mills—yes, the company that makes cinnamon rolls and cereal—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.
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 only house Olive Gardens.
3. PEOPLE GOT AMPED FOR THOSE $100 PASTA PASSES.
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; this year, passes were 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 at 115 meals, and an amazing longing for more carbs after the promotion ended.
4. THOSE UNLIMITED PROMOTIONS ARE THE WORST FOR SERVERS.
An Olive Garden server told Cosmo 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?
Olive Garden supposedly trains its chefs and upper management at a Tuscan cooking school—or so says 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 they 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.
Olive Garden’s beloved breadsticks came under fire in 2014 for their generous portions. Starboard Value, an investor in the Italian chain, sent Olive Garden execs a 300-slide presentation citing everything it hated about the restaurant. One of those points targeted the 675 million breadsticks Olive Garden serves annually, suggesting that amount is just too much. Starboard Value claimed the breadsticks only lasted seven minutes before becoming stale, leading to a lot of waste—and then compared them to hotdog buns. The investor’s solution was to serve only one breadstick per person (unless more were asked for), hoping for an annual savings of nearly $5 million. Pushback kept unlimited breadsticks the same, but Darden found other ways of cutting costs. Like only cleaning its carpets once per month.
7. PASTACHETTI? SOFFATELLI? THEY'RE NOT AUTHENTIC ITALIAN FOODS.
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 that 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% 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.
Even though its meals may not be the same as what you’d have at an authentic Italian dining experience, Olive Garden has created some Tuscan-inspired dishes. Like its pear and gorgonzola ravioli or a baked pasta romana. While both dishes were a flop with customers, anything with breadsticks almost 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.
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 sauces that come on top or the side? Mention that to your server and you may have the option of raspberry or fruit sauces instead.
10. A GRAND FORKS COLUMNIST BECAME FAMOUS FOR HER OLIVE GARDEN REVIEW.
A Grand Forks, N.D., 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 glimmering 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.