Seriously, Olive Garden, What Are You Doing?

In Darden Restaurants' (NYSE: DRI  ) latest quarter, its Olive Garden brand underperformed substantially. Sales are weak and the company is finding it difficult to bring customers through the door.

Part of this is due to the tepidity in consumer spending habits, but it's probably a lot more to do with Olive Garden's aged image. In a recent marketing maneuver and effort to bring in untapped markets, the Italian chain restaurant is now offering a burger. We've all been told, on several occasions, to not order that one item on the menu that is a clear aberration from a restaurant's forte. Is this the kind of "refresh" we can expect from Darden's Olive Garden?

Soup, salad, breadsticks, cheeseburgers
Admittedly, the author has not stepped foot in the classic Italian cuisine purveyor that is Olive Garden for many years. But the last time that did occur, it was glorious. Inexpensive and endless minestrone with parmesan-laced salad, coupled with more breadsticks than Pepperidge Farm could ever dream of -- it was a killer combination for less than $8. Above the $10 range, a chicken parmesan entrée was the meal of choice for so many anniversaries and end-of-season soccer soirees. Olive Garden had a great formula for the '90s, but everyone is aware that it needs a new "thing."

Enter: Italian Burger.

A staple
Italian food, whether it's cheap and American-ized, or real, is just so good. The detailed and rich cuisine goes in so many directions and can appeal to almost any eater. One thing firmly outside of the Italian realm is a burger. But Darden, watching so many other chains offering absurd burger combinations, couldn't resist.

The Italiano Burger -- Italiano is Italian for Italian -- includes Italian prosciutto (thinly sliced floppy bacon), mozzarella cheese, arugula (it's like lettuce!), and a garlic aioli spread. Aioli, for America purposes, is garlic mayonnaise. So this bacon cheeseburger is covered in garlic-y garlic mayonnaise. It comes with a side of parmesan french fries, which obviously must be delicious.

Now, besides the fact that this burger sounds pretty tasty (Business Insider says it's not), it's broadcasting a troubling message from Darden HQ to consumers. The message reads something like this: "You guys like burgers, right? Because we ran out of Italian food ideas, and Google isn't working." One can assume that if the burger doesn't work out, Olive Garden will begin to sell pasta fajole smoothies and fettuccine alfredo sushi.

There are rules
A golden rule of retailing, unless you were Steve Jobs, is that you can't dictate to the consumer. No one has ever walked into Olive Garden hoping they sell burgers. People go to Olive Garden exclusively for Italian-inspired dishes and copious, copious amounts of parmesan. To sell a burger at this restaurant is to ask you, the customer, to forget everything you knew about Olive Garden -- even the times you went there to celebrate your kid's Little League almost-victory.

Realistically, this burger will not affect the income statement or future earnings. It's made from stuff they already have back there in that Tuscan-inspired kitchen. But management needs to think a little harder about what it means to reinvent the Olive Garden brand.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:25 AM, TexasBoy78155 wrote:

    While I agree that I would not personally order a burger at an Olive Garden, there is a growing segment of society that will order a burger anyplace, anytime.

    Disney World has added burgers to the menus at many of their table service dining locations. if there wasn't serious requests for such things, I doubt they'd be on the menu at restaurarts like Les Chefs de France.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 6:30 PM, Vitabrits wrote:

    I think more people arising to the realization that any food served at a Darden restaurant is "fast food served slowly".

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 8:46 PM, melmay14 wrote:

    Let me try to come at it from a different angle though, and no, I'm not saying Italiano Burgers are necessarily a good idea.

    Niche and/or themed and/or ethnic restaurants are very difficult for large parties. The chances that a party of 10-15-20 or more will be able to agree on one restaurant is slim. But, in my experience, it is much more doable when it is a restaurant with variety. Texas Roadhouse for example, someone in the mood for steak, someone in the mood for salad, someone in the mood for chicken tenders....will all be catered to. And, if by chance someone is waffling on TR, there is always the old standby..."Hey, they have burgers. You'll eat a burger."

    Olive Garden, or insert any other specific restaurant, does not have that fall back. If someone is not in the mood for Italian, there isn't much on the menu that will sway them. Now, I know a number of times people in my parties have not been in the mood for Italian, but the line "You can always get soup and salad" usually convinces them. Who doesn't like a simple soup and salad, right? Well, hearty eaters and/or men probably aren't going to be AS enticed by "Hey how about some soup and salad?" as they would be by the potential for a good ol' fashioned hamburger.

    Further, stop me if any of these conversations sound familiar.

    "Hey, honey, Jim and Becky called, and wanted to know if we wanted to meet them for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory."

    "Welll.....I dunno...."

    "Come on, hun, surely there will be SOMETHING there you can eat. And, hey, if nothing else, you can always get a burger."

    "Yeah, I guess you're right."

    OR

    "Jordan, put the iPhone down. It's time to go inside to eat."

    "Olive Garden, ugh. But, I don't WANT Olive Garden."

    "Well, what would you like? I thought maybe you could get your favorite...chicken parmesan."

    "Well, I am NOT in the mood for Italian food today. There is absolutely nothing in there that I will eat."

    "Well, how about salad and breadsticks and maybe some soup?"

    "No, I just want something plain. Just a plain sandwich, is that OKAY?"

    "Okay, Steak n Shake it is"

    If any of these conversations sound at all familiar to you, you will see the benefit of adding a burger to the menu....not a full blown burger menu...they aren't re-inventing the wheel. Just adding an item for variety.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:40 PM, adrian8balboa wrote:

    Olive Garden needs gourmet pizza's and different salads.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:53 PM, pattie1001 wrote:

    I used to be a weekly OG customer. Not any more. The past few times we have been in, we didn't like anything on the menu. Being a prior weekly customer, my husband and I had our staple dishes and dessert we would order weekly - pork filletino and chicken con brocolli. Dessert would always be the chocolate lasagna cake. Without having these staple dishes on the menu, they in essence have chased us away. We have wanted to come back as customers and basically tried 3 times with the same result - not happy with the menu. I have always found there menu is not large enough. We have even tried their pizza thinking how can you go wrong with pizza, and we just didn't like it. We really wish we can come back as customers as we love the ambience of the restaurant and the servers have always gone out of there way. But until the old staples are brought back, you won't see us anytime soon.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 10:47 PM, susieq wrote:

    I don't find their pasta dishes particularly interesting or exciting or yummy. Much prefer Macaroni Grill or Cheesecake Factory.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 12:17 PM, dasiepat wrote:

    The (all you can eat) breadsticks and salad deal is also not as good as it is advertised. You have to request more which they usually take their good old time delivering.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 1:16 PM, imDanielle2 wrote:

    I think more people arising to the realization that any food served at a Darden restaurant is not worth your time and money and ever since they decided to start a war it's employee's and their low salaries, people decided to take their business elsewhere!

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 1:50 PM, Grandmabooboo wrote:

    My family ate at Olive Garden once when they first opened in our town.....about 20 years ago. We all thought we were going to go into diabetic comas before we finished our meal. The salads and bread sticks seemed promising but all of our entrees were so filled with sugar that not even the children in our group could eat them. It was truly horrible food. Not ever going there a 2nd time hasn't really been an issue as all of our friends have the same opinion. I don't know anyone who likes this restaurant.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 6:56 PM, Brian1 wrote:

    Darden went political with the anti-Obama stuff. That turned off half of the customer base. There aren't enough Cracker Barrel and Chik-Fil-A customers to make up the difference.

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