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May 22, 2001 06:59 PM

Olive Garden: An Inside Look

  • i

This could be called confessions of a former chain restaurant waiter...

while waiting for my career to catch fire, I waited tables at both The Olive Garden and Chili's (both in California). Since I was struggling and since both places gave discounts for staff to eat there, I did quite a lot of it. Chili's for the most part was far preferable as a place for me to eat (a vegetarian). But both places were pretty miserable.

The Olive Garden employed waiters that lied to customers repeatedly-about the age of our desserts (often desiccated from days in the fridge), about the suitability of items for vegetarians (the minestrone soup most often), about the wine, etc. Of course, our customers for lunch were often people who came in to bulk up on the soup and salad lunch which included unlimited bread stick and salad refills. Dinner was unruly family central. The food often came out of cans--almost all sauces were shipped from a corporate-sanctioned supplier. The cooks (most of whom were underpaid Mexicans and most of whom admitted to being baffled by the popularity of pasta) didn't know al dente from Al Lewis. Blah - all around.

Chili's popularity was always a shock to me. Why in California would you go to Chili's to have fajitas or anything tex-mex? Just get real mexican food for less money. At least at the branch where I worked though, the kitchen staff took more care while handling the ingredients and with hygiene than at the Olive Garden. If you are ever stuck eating at such chains, Chili's isn't too awful. The curly fries, while admittedly frozen, are well seasoned and the caesar dressing isn't as obtrusively heavy as at some chains.

Of course, this has naught to do with Manhattan and so any follow-ups should probably be in the General Topics board.

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  1. I have a friend (who shall be nameless) who insists that we go always to Olive Garden/Red Lobster/TGIFridays type places, which I can't for the life of me understand. I guess I can understand the desire for something familiar and predictable once in a while (maybe while vacationing in...hell?) but right in your own hometown? Where you KNOW where all the good places are? (Although I guess she thinks of them as good places.) I guess great big glasses of booze in neon colors make anyplace special. ($7.95 glasses of booze!!!)

    18 Replies
    1. re: toni

      Booze was a HUGE draw at Chili's and I even sort of understand it. Many college students prefer the machine-made frozen margaritas to the 'real' thing and thats what Chili's managed to sell a heck of a lot of... those frozen margaritas sold by the gallon, especially between 6:15pm and 9pm and on weekends.

      I also understand Chili's for frustrated parents who try to cater to the whims of several children at once. At Chili's, they could have burgers for some kids and ribs for others and chicken fingers... but those poor parents....

      Olive Garden didn't seem to do anywhere near as much business in alcohol. Some wine with dinner, but since waiters (including me) had little to no training in and certainly no knowledge of wine, it was caveat emptor all the way. I never even learned how to open a bottle of wine. I just brought the wine for the tables inspection and then brought it back to the bartender to have him/her open it for me! This is one case where bad service was a reflection of bad management (not that on my off days I wasn't a bad waiter as well, sorry to admit - at least I never knowingly lied to a customer).

      The worst part of it is that I am sure that the managers at the Olive Garden didn't care whether waiters knew anything about wine or about the ingredients of the food. The way we found out that the minestrone wasn't veggie was looking at the packaging it came in ourselves. That didn't deter waiters from continuing to push it as a veggie option.

      I am just glad I survived the experience and lived to never eat there again!

      1. re: igj

        I shouldn't allow myself to get worked up over stuff like this, but that Olive Garden ad campaign that presents the place as an good old-fashioned family Italian spot ("When you're here, you're family") really gets under my skin. It's not like I expect truth in advertising ("Our sauce comes from a can!"), but there's something about the place making a claim to be the polar opposite of what it actually is, both ideologically and gastronomically, that really galls me -- especially when suckers are happily flocking there in favor of far better places that actually may be family run.

        1. re: Chris E.

          Agreed. What self respecting American of Italian Descent would eat at this place. Also it's NOT ITALIAN FOOD!!!!!

          I live in an are of NJ that has experienced a housing boom the last 5 years. Along with the Pretentious SUV driving GAP dancers came the Restoration HArdwares (AKA Cultural Graverobbers), WIlliam Sonomas, Pottery Barns and a whole slew of chain restaurants. These places resemeble Hollywood premiers at dinner time - lines out the door with people waiting an hour for gussied up Jr. High Cafeteria fare. Meanwhile the mom and pop Thai palce down the street is half empty on a Saturday night. Go figger. I can't.

          What really drives me nuts is that a lot these rude, suburban imbeciles can't cook yet they spend tons of money on expensive cookware and huge kitchens with 6 burner Mt. Vesuvius gas ranges that double as a blast furnace.

          1. re: pat i.

            Their marketing is aimed at people who want to think they like exotic food and are sophisticated, but are aware on some level that the real thing would be uncomfortably familiar.

            No, Italians never eat giant mounds of greasy pasta.

            There are only two possibilities:
            1) The marketers are stupid;
            2) They think we are.

            1. re: pat i.

              >What self respecting American of Italian Descent would eat at this place. Also it's NOT ITALIAN FOOD!!!!!

              Cousin Giorgio, aparently. At least according to their ad (that's constantly on the Food Network) which implies that Italians LOVE the Olive Garden, and that the waitresses will have the hots for you just by gracing their presence. Of course, most commercials are a bunch of hooey.

              However, my feelings on chain restaurants differ a bit from most Chowhound sentiment I've read. I like chain or "full service" (as opposed to fast food joints) eateries. I really do. Places like Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday's and Olive Garden put a smile on my face.

              Don't get me wrong. I love "real" food too--one of the best things about living in NYC is the abundance of amazing dining options. Discovering new neighborhoods, scouring markets, and scoping out mysterious restaurants is all good fun. But sometimes you're not in a different state of mind.

              I don't live walking distance to simple things like banks, laundromats or grocery stores with more than three aisles (just try and find a vanilla bean in Sunset Park). Every now and then, I dream of the suburbs: parking lots, fully-stocked shelves, walking without being bumped every two feet...Blizzards at Dairy Queen. I don't neccesarily want to live in one of these lands of plenty, but whenever I'm with someone who has a car, my mind invariably wanders to thoughts of chain stores and restaurants.

              I put a lot of effort into finding and getting to the only Friendly's in the five boroughs (Staten Island Mall). I wasn't disappointed. After an excursion to the place that used to be called Yaohan Plaza (can't remember the new name that starts with an M) in Edgewater, NJ, I headed to the Target and was wowed by the Outback Steakhouse in the parking lot. I almost started bawling when I heard there'd be an hour wait (must be a real Friday night hot spot). Instead, I ended up at Relish in Williamsburg and was perfectly satisfied, though I couldn't help wondering what one of those garish Bloomin' Onions would've tasted like.

              I trekked upstate last summer to sample the original Anchor Bar Buffalo wings, but I still couldn't resist a pitstop in T.G.I.Fridays (where I also ordered Buffalo wings). For a spell, I was determined to eat a chain restaurant meal every major holiday, but only got as far as Easter at the Time's Square Olive Garden, and Christmas Eve at T.G.I.Fridays near Grand Central. Who knows what culinary treasures await 4th of July?

              Anyway, chain restaurants are perfectly fine for what they are--fun, fast, predictable. I don't think anyone walks in expecting steaks on par with Peter Luger, or cheese plates a la Artisanal when at best they'll get a quesadilla "overstuffed" with American cheese and pepper jack. At least I hope not.

              Eating's all about balance. If you throw some crap in every now and then, you just might appreciate an exquisite meal all the more.

              1. re: Krista G.

                She is absolutely correct.

                I also eat almost everything, but occasionally seek the comfort of a Sizzler or Red Lobster when outside
                the city (after a long day at Target).

                Of course, my positive associations also have to do with the hand-me-down poverty pervading my childhood.
                We lived in a town of 3000 people in a very isolated area of the country, the Upper Peninsula (Michigan). After
                bankruptcy and chopping up the furniture for firewood one winter, my dad managed to somehow support a
                family of 4 on $12,000/yr. Yes, we always had the Reagan Cheese in the fridge (the block o' American Gov't
                cheese), and I clutched a garishly colored free lunch ticket, as opposed to the muted color of a full price
                ticket at elementary school. My back to school wardrobe was always provided by the local St. Vinnie's and the
                lost and found of the laundromat managed by Grandma.

                Looking back, I feel awful for what my parents endured, because their taste exponentially exceeded their
                income, having spent their hipster years on the East Coast. Dinners, consequently ranged from pot pies one
                night to steamed artichokes the next - they would scrape and save just to put something slightly exotic on the
                table once in a while.

                Dinner at a Red Lobster, for me anyway, was a grand treat in itself. Not only did you have to drive ONE
                HOUR to Marquette to actually find the closest one, but they served LOBSTER. This for me was the pinnacle
                of richness, only to be had on the most selective of all special occasions. I remember winning a state spelling bee
                in the fifth grade, and was treated to a LOBSTER dinner afterwards (though it wasn't at Red Lobster, my mom
                assured me it was a better restaurant). Mom said they overcooked it, but I didn't care; I felt like a queen with
                my tiny fork and drawn butter.

                It's psychological, really. Although I know full well that my parents' meals were much tastier at a fraction of the
                price, it was the forbidden, apparent grandeur of such an experience that appealed to me. (Besides, all the other
                kids' parents took them every week!) The weird thing is, although I can afford to eat someplace like Union
                Square Cafe on a fairly regular basis, and Peter Luger once in a while, I still feel this dual sense of apprehension
                and empowerment when I walk into a Red Lobster. My gut instinct wonders, "Can I afford this?" and my
                cocky, independent lady side replies, "I can afford this!" Regardless, I am always profoundly grateful I'm at a
                point in my life where I don't have to worry about whether I can afford to treat myself. If you've been in the
                other place, you know exactly what I'm saying.

                What's even stranger is that my French Canadian grandmother, who's crepes and onion casserole keep me
                begging her for her recipe arsenal, still lives in Marquette, and still considers Red Lobster a "fancy" restaurant.
                As odd as that sounds, I know where she's coming from!

                1. re: Minty

                  Thank you for a beautifully rendered, humbling post. I'll never look at Red Lobster the same.

                  1. re: Minty

                    Bless your heart.

                    That's one of the most moving posts I've ever read.

                    1. re: JP

                      Awww shucks, guys. It's all true, every word of it!

                      I still harbor terrific malice for the cretin who first implemented the multicolored lunch ticket system!

                      1. re: Minty

                        >I still harbor terrific malice for the cretin who first implemented the multicolored lunch ticket system!<

                        Me too, damit!

                        1. re: JP

                          When my son was in the first grade, reading groups were given names: Lions, Tigers, and Bears, in that order, depending on how well the kids were progressing with reading skills. How long do you think it took 6 year olds to figure out who was "smart" and who wasn't? About a minute and a half! The social experience began and ended there for many children, I'm sure. Pat

                  2. re: Krista G.

                    Thank you for the non-tongueincheek, down to earth reminiscence. Comfort food is ALWAYS good - it's hard to remember sometimes that there is a whole pallate of comfort for different people. Next time you're in New England, I'd like to buy you a lobster.

                    - John

                  3. re: pat i.

                    Hey, how do you really feel?

                    1. re: rossi

                      Pretty darn good. You?

                    2. re: pat i.
                      Janet A. Zimmerman

                      When I read the disparaging comments about chain restaurants, I mentally divide the criticisms into two camps: one bemoans the homogenization of America and lumps the restaurants into the same category as malls and chain stores; the other focuses on the food and its quality.

                      I'm purposely ignoring the first sort of argument, but as far as the quality of food goes, I think that we may tend to dismiss the chains too quickly. It seems to me that we may be forgetting what culinary background the patrons of the full service chains generally have. When you're used to boxed dinners (Hamburger Helper, Rice a Roni, etc), "beef stroganoff" made with cream of mushroom soup, tacos made with hamburger seasoned with Lawry's Taco Seasoning and the like, the Outback and Red Lobster probably do taste pretty good.

                      I'm sure we'd all like to think we born with discriminating and sophisticated palates, and perhaps some of us did develop such palates at an early age. But my guess is that most of us had to learn to appreciate good foods, just as we had to learn how to appreciate good literature or good music. You can't expect most people, for example, to jump from enjoying Michael Bolton to appreciating Wagner with no intervening steps, or to step from Danielle Steele to Doestoyevsky in one fell swoop. Likewise, I don't think most people can go from Chef Boyardee to sweetbreads or to Thomas Keller's "Oysters and Pearls" without something in between.

                      We can disparage the chains, because we've tasted better (much better), just as we can disparage Blue Nun or Lancers because we've had better wine (or disparage Michael Bolton because we now like Brian Eno or Stravinsky). But we shouldn't forget that the chains, like those wines, might well represent a step up on the gastronomic ladder for a lot of people. In that sense, I believe they serve a valuable purpose.

                      1. re: pat i.

                        This reminds me of a poll conducted I believe by the (horrible unto itself) San Diego Union-Tribune, in which San Diegans voted The Olive Garden their favorite restaurant, "Italian" or otherwise. I can't remember other specifics but 90% of the favorites were chains.

                        My Mom and I still get a big laugh out of that one.

                        1. re: Lisa Bee

                          That's hardly unique to the UT or San Diego. Anytime any news publication compiles lists or rankings like these, chain restaurants and popular hangouts are almost invariably at the top. Like it or not, those are the places with which most people, anywhere, are familiar.

                      2. re: Chris E.

                        >but that Olive Garden ad campaign that presents the place as an good old-fashioned family Italian spot ("When you're here, you're family") really gets under my skin.<

                        You and me both! What are you after you leave, a dumb sucker? I wouldn't eat there if they paid me.

                  4. b
                    Brandon Nelson

                    Hi Ian

                    Quite a few "respected" and "high end" restaraunts serve frozen fries. Some of them are quite good. If we were to measure the quality of an eatery on this factor alone many of us would be shocked by the result.

                    My sister loves the chains too. I don't get it either, but to each his own.

                    411 I had a buddy that worked at Sizzler during high school. The food stories he told were similar to one of those expose shows with hidden cameras. Thoroughly nasty.


                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Brandon Nelson

                      "411 I had a buddy that worked at Sizzler during high school. The food stories he told were similar to one of
                      those expose shows with hidden cameras. Thoroughly nasty."

                      Oh, I can top that one; my first job was an Owensboro, KY Ponderosa Steakhouse (my pallor and non-big hair wouldn't allow me to work retail) as a salad bar attendant (one of the managers thought I didn't have the "personality" to cart food out to people - I soon learned how to say, "Hah, how ya'all doin'?" sans Yankee accent, so was eventually, uh, promoted). For those of you not familiar with this fine establishment, it's a lower-grade Sizzler, but operates on the same steak and all-you-can-eat salad bar principle. Now I know you've all heard the "Ah need mower butter and sahher caream NOW (nothing personal against Southerners, you can insert any regional dialect)," and "Ah wont mah stayak extra extra weyell-done" tales, but my goodness, you wouldn't believe the food-handling techniques of these clowns! "OOPS" porterhouse steaks dropped in the walk-in sludge only to be immediately be thrown on the grill by a winking cook, cesspool garnish tubs, and was the sundae machine ever cleaned?
                      Despite the fact that I was to later work under even more unsanitary conditions, this job will always stand out as troubling on my good days, and traumatizing to my very core on the bad ones.

                      1. re: Minty
                        Brandon Nelson

                        How about cockroach puree in the cocktail sauce?

                        My friend and his cohorts had a running contest to see who could serve the most disgusting food.


                        1. re: Brandon Nelson

                          I realize this person is a friend but I like to think there's a special place in hell for people who F*** with other people's food. Your friend and his/her cohorts are unwell.

                          1. re: bryan
                            Brandon Nelson

                            I concur with that notion

                            Perhaps I should clarify that the stories were related by Kyle, he never claimed to participate. Lets all hope that hell has a brutal buffet in store for those who don't have the class to treat other peoples food with all the respect it deserves.


                    2. I understand where you're coming from on the Chili's thing. I lived in a moderate-sized town on the gulf coast and the far-and-away busiest seafood place in town was Red Lobster - and miles from the water to boot. Go figure !

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Smokey

                        I live near Portland, Maine. After years of being bombarded by Red Lobster ads, we saw one open near the Mall. It wasn't open very long. The Olive Garden is still there.

                      2. ...And, why are most of the "in search of" requests on other little cooking message boards looking for the recipes for these places????? This is the most amazing thing I can imagine --- people are actually desparately searching for some Red Lobster or Chili's recipe right now ....

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