Olive Garden: Prepare For Hipper, Healthier Fare

Dan Harkins

As the corporate overlord of Olive Garden, Darden Restaurants Inc., prepares to jettison its ailing Red Lobster brand to the highest bidder, its top chef is busy turning the company's Italian chain into a hipster powerhouse.

At Darden's headquarters test kitchen in Orlando, head chef Jim Nuetzi is creating one new dish after another to reposition Olive Garden as a healthy place to eat authentic and inspiring Italian grub. He tells Bloomberg that ingredients that the chain has often overlooked so as not to alienate the customers who've made the chain contribute about 40 percent of Darden's revenue are now being employed with gusto, from kale and pistacio-crusted truffles to capers and balsamic glazes.

"We are purposely using ingredients that would have been considered polarizing," he said. "If we don't start introducing polenta, olives and capers, we're going to miss the boat."

He's also working tirelessly to make the restaurant's heavier dishes, like those involving alfredo, much lighter and calorie-conscious.

Already, the chain has unveiled small plates at its restaurants in direct competition with its main competitor, Carrabba's, which also just launched the same kind of new items. Olive Garden's new offerings: Grillen Chicken Spiedini skewers with red wine and alfredo dipping sauces; balsamic-drizzled Roasted Asparagus; and a Tuscan White Bean Hummus.

On the way are even more dishes in the same vein, said Nuetzi, like a Polenta Shrimp alla Greca which loads its sauteed shrimp and bed of polenta down with the bold flavors of capers, tomatoes and olives.

All this is happening as investors are calling for action on how Darden should handle its Red Lobster chain, which has seen flat-lined revenue. On Friday, the company eliminated six combination Olive Garden/Red Lobster franchises in Georgia and South Carolina, saying that they would ultimately become stand-alone Olive Garden restaurants.

"Everything else will work itself out if they can get Olive Garden trending in the right direction," Peter Saleh, an analyst at New York-based Telsey Advisory Group, told Bloomberg.

Trying to replicate the hybrid model made popular by pairings like Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts as well as Taco Bell and KFC apparently didn't translate to the sit-down environment, restaurant industry analyst Lynne Collier told the St. Augustine Record: "I don't know if it plays that well in casual dining, or other people would have tried it. It was an effort for them to reduce their investment costs and improve their store level returns. My guess is it's not something they'll do again anytime soon."

In addition to the new tapas-style items, Darden also has added a Cucina Mia menu that lets diners build their own personalized pasta dishes, starting at a budget-conscious price of just $9.99. Other changes: a new logo and aesthetic design improvements in the restaurants to give them cleaner lines and brighter bursts of color.

How this will translate into revenue increases is still unknown. Will Olive Garden be able to surmount Carrabba's as America's most popular Italian chain restaurant? It certainly will take more than unlimited salad and breadsticks to do that.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]