The moment that carb maulers have been waiting for is here again. Darden Restaurants' (NYSE:DRI) Olive Garden is back with its Never Ending Pasta Pass, offering buyers of the one-way ticket to Gluttonville unlimited meals at the casual dining chain for 49 days of inevitable regret.
The passes go on sale for $100 apiece tomorrow at 2 p.m. EST, exclusively through Olive Garden's website. If that sounds like a sale that you can afford to miss, keep in mind that Darden Restaurants made just 1,000 passes available last year. Even with a glitchy website it managed to sell out within the hour.
The $100 pass offers buyers unlimited meals between Oct. 5 and Nov. 22 from its Never Ending Pasta Bowl menu that offers patrons a single pasta, sauce, and optional topping. The refills are perpetual, making this pass a smorgasbord within a smorgasbord. One has to wonder why it's not called the Never Ending Never Ending Pasta Pass.
The pass is only good for the person named on the pass. Olive Garden knew exactly what you were thinking of doing with the pass. Nice try, Mr. McHandMeDown. However, it does include complimentary soft drinks for the pass holder and anyone else dining with that person. Why should you engage in this Morgan Spurlock documentary waiting to happen alone? Pass holders can also carry out as many as two takeout orders a day, and whether you use that to feed your ferret or caulk your bathtub, who am I to judge?
Darden is making things interesting this year, adding another 1,000 "family" passes at $300 apiece. The family pass is good for the named pass holder and any three guests. It's the right move. Why appeal to loners craving cheap pasta when you can drum up a social experiment to see how many of your friends are willing to grab lunch with you when they don't have to pay?
Olive Garden made itself a punchline with last year's Never Ending Pasta Pass promotion, and that likely made it easier for activists investors to sway shareholders to vote out the board a few weeks later. Starboard Value took over, and keeping this brand-tarnishing tradition around seems as silly as scaling back on the initial order of all-you-can-eat breadsticks.
Darden's new executives were making some headway in turning things around. Comps posted a year-over-year increase of 3.4% at Olive Garden in its latest quarter, but that was solely the handiwork of higher prices. Same-restaurant traffic declined in the final two months of the fiscal quarter, and has actually fallen in five of the past six months.
Fans of mediocre Italian cuisine -- and that's not me in mean-spirited mode, that's Yelp talking -- will argue that the Never Ending Pasta Pass promotion is a clever way to draw attention to its boiled noodles. It generates free publicity on social media sites and through news outlets. However, it generates the wrong kind of free publicity. It drums up stories on health concerns of going gonzo with Alfredo-doused cavatappi or profiles of cheapskates trying to milk dozens of meals -- 115 meals in one extreme case -- during the seven-week buffet.
Darden's new regime has taken smart strides in turning things around since taking over the multi-concept operator that also watches over LongHorn, Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Yard House. Why did it have to go and play the waste card?