Why Olive Garden's Loyal Customers Can (and Should) Ignore Its Critics

The future is not looking bright for Olive Garden, the once-popular chain owned by Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI  ) . But it hasn't given up yet.

Earlier this month, the Italian-themed concept announced the latest phase in its "ongoing brand renaissance" by rolling out a new logo, remodeled interiors, and new menu items.

While the strategy has attracted more than its fair share of criticism, from myself included, there's no doubt that it's a necessary (and hopefully successful) step in the right direction for the ailing chain.

The dark ages at Olive Garden
The idea that Olive Garden is trying to spark a "renaissance" is fitting. If you'll recall, the Renaissance marked the end of the Dark Ages, which cast a draconian shadow over Europe for nearly 1,000 years. That Olive Garden remains mired in its own version of the Dark Ages is beyond dispute. Over the last three years, it's reported positive same-store sales in only three out of 12 quarters.

This type of performance is an abomination for a restaurant chain. To add insult to injury, moreover, many of Olive Garden's casual-dining competitors are seeing consistent unit-level growth.

Outback, for example, has reported year-over-year quarterly sales increases in seven out of the last eight quarters. Chili's comparable sales have been up in 10 out of the last 12 quarters.

Even more disturbing is the performance of Italian-themed casual-dining chains like Maggiano's Little Italy and Carrabba's Italian Grill. Maggiano's has notched 14 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth. And Carrabba's comparable sales have been up in five out of the past eight quarters.

My point is that Olive Garden isn't suffering from a generalized aversion to casual-dining restaurants brought on by fast-casual upstarts like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. Its failings are instead of its own design.

Can Darden ignite a renaissance?
It's with this as a background that Darden's executives have undertaken a comprehensive overhaul of their bread-and-butter concept.

They updated Olive Garden's logo to resemble an olive branch as opposed to a grapevine. They refreshed the menu by adding items and targeting specific dayparts. And they're renovating the restaurant's interiors to create a "more open and inviting atmosphere."

Olive Garden's new logo. Source: Darden Restaurants.

"We're making a transformation to the brand," an Olive Garden spokesman told The Huffington Post earlier this year. "We're moving away from some of the things we've done in the past -- traditional Tuscan warmth -- and embracing a more contemporary Italy."

But despite these efforts, or rather because of them, a torrent of criticism has been unleashed. "Olive garden's new logo finally knows what an olive looks like," Fast Company's John Brownlee wrote. "But does it really sum up the restaurant chain's subpar culinary experience?"

"The new logo looks like the homework assignment of a teacher's pet in second grade," said Slate's L.V. Anderson. And Business Insider's Hayley Peterson chimed in with, "People hate Olive Garden's new logo."

But here's the thing: What do critics expect? Olive Garden's problem is that it had gotten stale. Its food was boring and dated. Its service was too slow. And its atmosphere and appearance were similarly behind the times.

In other words, the executives at Darden are doing exactly what needs to be done for Olive Garden. Whether they'll succeed remains to be seen. But either way, they shouldn't be begrudged for trying.

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