We get Letters v.12 – Where Does Olive Garden Go Wrong?

Seth sends me the following missive:


First of all, let me tell you how much I have enjoyed perusing your site since I found it on Tuesday. I’m doing research for a Marketing class project and am therefore searching out articles/reviews primarily on Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden, but also on Buca di Beppo and The Old Spaghetti Factory. I found your comments on Buca di Beppo very helpful in getting my head wrapped around the different styles of Italian food.

Secondly, I am in need of help as far as finding out what Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden do wrong. This is one of the most important parts of my project, and I am discovering that nobody can give me any substantial complaints about either restaurant beyond, “there were water spots on my knife.” Do you have any tips as to where I should look for those slight inadequacies in either restaurant?

Warmest Regards,

Thanks for the kind word, Seth. I’ll see if I can help you out.

The issue in your e-mails surrounds the phrase “What do Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden Do wrong?” The problem is in how are your defining “wrong”? Financially, both restaurant chains do quite well. Olive Garden locations average $3.9 million dollars in revenue per year. Macaroni Grill reports similar numbers. So by that account, there’s nothing wrong with these restaurants, as they make money, which is what they are designed to do.

So let’s presume a different interpretation of how they go wrong: with their cuisine. I’ll say it direct and I’ll say it loud…these companies take advantage of our ignorance of Italian food. They don’t go out of their way to do it, nor do I believe it is intentional. But they do it.

There are three behaviors that they employ to go about doing this. The first two are philosophical behaviors, the second is a business decision.

The First philosophical: Any one who has worked in a franchised restaurant can tell you, one of the major items that permeate the kitchen is consistency. Management requires, or rather, demands that a product served in Boston is similar to one served in Phoenix.

The problem is that this is almost the antithesis of Italian food. Not only are there variations in ingredient quantities from recipe to recipe, but often there are differences in the ingredients themselves. Gnocchi found in Rome is far different from the Gnocchi found in Milan.

What this means is that these restaurants standardized recipes which were never meant to be standardized. Whether or not this is a bad thing probably depends upon how much you like these kinds of corporate restaurants.

The Second Philosophical: Generally speaking, corporate restaurants are risk adverse. Introducing new dishes to a menu is a long process. This process includes various people within corporate hierarchy making projections of sales and their relations to cost. If a restaurant can’t make x% of profit from any dish, it’s not going to get put on the menu. If they can’t promise y amount of the dishes being sold, that dish won’t be put on the menu. So lesser known dishes will never get a chance to be sold in the marketplace.

The Business Decision: Corporate restaurants are famous for shooting at the lowest common denominator. Never has this philosophy been better demonstrated than on what does make it to the menu.

The next time you go to one of these places, count how many of them deal with a tomato product of some sort. One get’s the impression that the Italians love tomatoes, especially with pasta. But consider that there are Italian sauces that have nothing to do with tomatoes,; sauces based on walnuts, basil, lemons, mushrooms, vermouth or Marsala wine. Why aren’t they on the menu?

Keep in mind that a restaurant has finite resources. And if people are going to come in and expect lasagna, ravioli, marinara, and the like, it means one less space for another dish.

And that’s just the pasta. I won’t even touch upon the lack of rice or polenta dishes. And lordy lord, the dessert menus simply make me cry with lost opportunities.

There are other,more specific reasons I could point to, but these seem to me to be their biggest sins.

What this all means is that they sell the same risk adverse dishes everywhere across the country. They market dishes they know will sell, and present it in a way that appeases as many people as possible, at the lowest cost possible. What this all boils down to is that these places don’t celebrate food, they package it and sell it.

Now — whether that’s wrong is entirely your perspective.

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