Can a Burger Save Olive Garden?

Somewhere between the endless bread sticks and bottomless salad bowl, don't be surprised if you find yourself chowing down on a burger at Olive Garden.

Darden Restaurants' (NYSE: DRI  ) struggling casual dining chain added a hamburger to its menu this week. It's not just a regular burger. Olive Garden's Italiano Burger comes loaded with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, arugula, and marinated tomatoes in a bun dressed up with a garlic aioli spread. Parmesan garlic fries accompany the sandwich.

This may seem like a big departure for the Italian restaurant that prides itself on its signature pasta dishes and European flair, but desperate times call for desperate measures -- even if it means hopping on the gourmet burger trend that injects some Americana into the concept.

Sales haven't been exactly hopping at Olive Garden these days. Comps slipped 4% at the chain in Darden's latest quarter. It's not a new development. U.S. same-restaurant sales declined 1.5% at Olive Garden in fiscal 2013 after sliding 1.2% in fiscal 2012.

We're in an economic recovery, and Olive Garden can't seem to grow its sales. Adding a high-end burger -- even if it's one dolled up in Italian hams and ingredients -- isn't necessarily a bad idea. Unfortunately, it's not likely to work.

Darden's sister concept Red Lobster tried to appeal to more than just seafood lovers by updating its menu late last year. Landlubber staples including pork chops and a parmesan-crusted chicken pasta were added to its offerings. If folks were avoiding Red Lobster because they didn't like seafood or had a shellfish allergy, they now had new reasons to go along with their friends testing their guts' mettle during the endless shrimp promotion.

It didn't work. Red Lobster's comps fell 2.2% in fiscal 2013, and it kicked off fiscal 2014 this summer by posting a 5.2% decline in same-restaurant sales. 

One can always argue that Olive Garden and Red Lobster aren't alone. There are several casual dining chains just getting by these days. Consumers have traded out of casual dining, opting for the fast casual trend that delivers casual dining-quality food but with the quick service and convenience of fast-food chains. It's not a surprise that two of this year's hottest IPOs -- gourmet sandwich maker Potbelly and pasta twirler Noodles & Co. -- happen to be in the fast casual category. Why wait an hour for a table service pasta dinner when Noodles & Co. can get you in an out in half the time? Won't the same cruel math sting Olive Garden with the Italiano Burger? As original and tasty as it may seem, most gourmet burger joints or an upscale sandwich shop like Potbelly will get you fed and out the door in a fraction of the time that it takes to order at Olive Garden, wait for the food, and then flag down the wait staff to cash out. 

Analysts see Darden growing its sales in the mid-single digits in the year ahead, but that's largely the result of expanding its smaller concepts that are holding up better than Olive Garden or Red Lobster. Wall Street sees Potbelly and Noodles & Co. growing their top lines at double-digit rates. 

There's nothing wrong with Olive Garden trying to expand its potential audience by wooing burger buffs, but it better know that it still had a bigger problem that a single sandwich can't fix. 

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  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 9:20 AM, TexasBoy78155 wrote:

    It still amazes me that Olive Garden is in trouble at all. The ones around my neck of the woods are always busy, no matter when you go there.

    As to the burger addition, there are some people that eat burgers no matter how fancy the restaurant may be. Disney has added burgers to the menu of the Brown Derby and Les Chefs De France...so obviously they're on the menu for a reason.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 11:13 AM, guidyy wrote:

    Just for the hell of it, there is nothing italian in that burger, including the pattie itself.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 11:31 AM, dingofever wrote:

    I stopped going to the olive garden, their quality has suffered.... I ordered veal parm... and they deep fried it... I was not happy... their " buy a dinner to eat there and get one to take home for another day.... for 12.99 "... was NO value... altho somewhat tasty... the portion was extremely small.... I have no plans on ever going back to the garden.... years ago, prices were sorta reasonable and food was a much better quality... Red Lobster is not much better.... the last time there, the 1/2 portion of shrimp pasta was a child portion... and the spaghetti was broken into small pieces.. the white sauce was as thick as the edible glue my son used in kindergarten, when I asked to speak to the manager, she did not give a damn... so I have no plans on going back... especially the their prices being so extremely high...

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 1:16 PM, idigit wrote:

    As long as their prices stay so high for the quantity of food, I don't think hamburgers will save them. I used to go to Red Lobster frequently until the prices got so high and the portions kept getting smaller. Now, I could care less if they both went out of business.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 2:45 PM, SFCGator wrote:

    The burger's a gimmick and will not bring any more customers in this economy. All of these restaurateurs and other food service businesses need to understand that until the economy improves their sales will never recover. They need to stop funding/donating to anti-capitalist politicians and instead give those monies to conservative, capitalist candidates that will turn this nation wide financial disaster around. A rising tide lifts all boast and a rising economy will increase business across the board and not just for the food industry.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 3:02 PM, patticake wrote:

    They have tried everything AFTER all the other chains have. They are followers & not leaders. The problem with this company is not in their food but in they way they conduct their business.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2013, at 4:32 PM, tpicciani wrote:

    Olive Garden's problem is that they expect people will not tire of frozen food that's been reheated by people who don't make enough to care about their job. This is the price you pay for people who don't make enough to consider Olive Garden a career move. Same goes for every other division of Darden.

    When you server shrimp or lobster that's been previously frozen, people notice! When you serve pasta dishes that are prepared with mass produced product? It shows. Their cost cutting measures have killed their business, both from service and food quality.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 12:08 AM, realisticlady wrote:

    I stopped dining at this restaurant because of the poor quality of food. I dont mind paying for good food. Olive Garden try to disguise the poor quality of meat with sauces. It doesn't work for me. Italian recipes are one of the least expensive food to mass produce. There's no need to use low grade meat. If restaurants like Olive Garden, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday or Mimi's dont step up the quality of their food. They will continue to struggle.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 7:43 AM, MissDiLondon wrote:

    This Burger certainly can. A good Burger deserves a spot on any menu, and that includes your finest restarants. Olive Gardens problem is, their Italian foods, don't taste Italian, especially their Spaghetti.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 2:12 PM, Diane2005 wrote:

    The things that will bring Olive Garden back are good food and reasonable wait times. Oh, and they need to learn what "al dente" pasta means. The mush they serve is disgusting.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 3:06 PM, VeganSusan wrote:

    I received a $100 gift certificate for Olive Garden and checked the menu. They have 0 vegan options. I wrote to them and asked if they had ANYTHING that did not contain, meat, dairy or eggs. They never wrote me back ... that alone would keep me from EVER going there. The only time I've suffered through that place was because a friend had a waitress friend who worked there and she wanted to help support her and give her a large tip. Neither of us ate much because the food is awful, especially the marinera sauce ... blah!

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:11 PM, ScamuelJones wrote:

    Olive Garden will fail because their owners (Darden Group) are a bunch of communist loving and American hating people who will NOT even let the American flag be displayed in a civic meeting on their premises. I quit going there and also to Red Lobster after they pulled that stunt and forced a Kiwanis Club to remove the U. S. flag because it "might offend" Muslims!

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:52 PM, slocook1 wrote:

    I have never eaten at Olive Garden because their commercials turned me off the first time I ever saw one. Everything seems so fast paced and loud they always remind me of eating in a public cafeteria during the lunch hour hush.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:14 PM, DDjade wrote:

    I saw this coming, trouble. The past few months. the servers are starting to rush you out. They never used to do that. These stupid restaurants are CAVERNOUS yet have so few booths and tables they make people wait 60 mins. Most people just leave. Olive Garden is the only restaurant that I actually leave hungry. If you are a vegetarian and eat healthily, you're screwed. Cuts out the pasta and meat. Why do I eat there? I like the eggplant, kids like the pasta and soup and the atmosphere is nice before anyone spouts..There are very few choices where I live as well. I agree with the other post that says they are not consistent. Portions and cooking methods are different in every one and I have had their items on both coasts. The eggplant will be thick barely able to chew in one, thin and burned to a crisp in another. ONe you get 10 raviolis and another 12. You never know what youre getting.

    Would I want to change that? No because then it wouldnt be cooked to order and would come pre-packaged. Not good. And like the other post said, how could they be in trouble , when a wait is always 45 to an hour on weekends?

    They must have their little mitts in too many investments. And olive garden, get rid of that stupid end table and put ANOTHER couch if you are going to tell people its going to be an hour. They could put couches all along that stupid wall too where their lazy staff likes to meander back and forth.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:36 PM, johno wrote:

    I'll go there to try the burger. Olive Garden got boring. My kids like it but I like Carrabas better. The burger looks good. Let's do it!

    At least Olive Garden is Trying .

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