HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >


WSJ - Olive Garden tries to attract foodies - cautiously


Waiter, I'll Have the Crowd-Pleaser
Casual Restaurants Try to Lure Foodies Without Alienating Other Diners; What Makes a Dish 'Cravable'

Pesto, gnocchi, and capers are too exotic for many Olive Garden customers.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. So what if people wouldn't order gnocchi in red wine marinara sauce, but would order the same thing as "traditional Italian dumpling" in chicken soup? Sometimes, I want food that is "really rustic, but still kind of normal".

    I don't feel that everyone has to like the same things I do and I long for a restaurant that has a section of the menu for an adventurous diner and another section full of well-done but extremely safe and unadventurous dishes for the non-foodie.

    Speaking of dumbed down, check out the "interactive graphic" for people who are too intellectually weak to read the article.

    1. I am really glad to see the WSJ version of the OG story.
      Here is another version with same info and attitude by another
      writer, in another site. Very strange.


      Does this prove a conspiracy to discredit OG? Probably not, but I have been curious about
      the level of constant negative comments/news/reviews about a thriving chain.

      I am aware of the clientele OG seeks to serve, and willing to let them go about their business.
      My wife and and I still enjoy the salad, soup, and bread sticks lunch occasionally, and find tasty indeed.

      1 Reply
      1. re: justicenow

        You do realize the blog post you mention links to the WSJ story that it quotes heavily, right?

      2. I was immediately reminded: "Foodies eat where they're told."

        1. "Large company with stores across the country aims to appeal to a lot of people"

          <picks self up off the floor>

          1. Ok..I have to put my two cents into this one---where do I begin though? Foodism is like religion to me. Keep it to yourselves and don't pontificate or push it onto others. By that, I mean, Olive Garden has a clientele and they should stick to it. Their formula is for those who, in my opinion, think Italian food is Ragu and spaghetti....trust me I'm not saying that in a condescending tone at all. I grew up in an Irish/American family where Italian food was spaghetti slathered in Ragu sauce, and meatballs were little balls of chopped meat with salt, pepper and garlic powder dropped raw into that Ragu sauce to simmer. Top it all off with store-brand grated cheese. My very own siblings LOVE Olive Garden. If it ain't broke--don't fix it. Olive Garden seems to do very well, I know when I lived in NJ, the Lawrenceville/Princeton OG did an incredibe business--the lot was always full of cars. Personally, I'm shocked, though that people don't know what gnoochi is. That's weird.

            11 Replies
            1. re: jarona

              The article goes on to say that chains like OG, Applebees, etc, are constantly tweaking their menus. Somehow I think the "don't fix it" approach would sink the companies.

              One reason people wouldn't order gnocchi is because they're unsure of how to pronounce it.

              1. re: tommy

                I realize that the chains are "tweaking" all the time--but they don't really do major changes with unusual items--like--um...pigs head for example or sheep's cheeks. They'll do something like add sliders to their menu or make a 3 for $10.00 kind of thing. I dunno--I just feel like there is a restaurant for everybody--don't try to change a chain into something it is never going to be. That said--I like your assessment of why people wouldn't order gnocchi--good one:)

                1. re: jarona

                  "Over the past two years, Applebee's has changed about 80% of its menu. It revamped everything from its rice (instant is now long-grain) to the addition of more New Orleans-inspired dishes.

                  T.G.I. Friday's has tweaked or changed about 60% of the items on its menus in the past two years to add more ingredients that look and taste fresh."

                  No one is really discussing "unusual" items.

                  1. re: tommy

                    I have to laugh at "add more ingredients that look and taste fresh." What are these mystery ingredients that are meant to look fresh?

                    1. re: Manassas64

                      That was my thought, but I think tommy is pointing to that a lot more people are growing conscious of the value of fresh ingredients and those restaurants are trying to attract those diners. There is a difference between the general cultural change and not so much an appear to "foodies," whatever that exactly means.

                2. re: tommy

                  <The article goes on to say that chains like OG, Applebees, etc, are constantly tweaking their menus. >

                  Yes. they keep adding items to "Alfredo Sauce" and "Parmesan Sauce" Real Italian, yeah right....

                  1. re: ChefJune

                    Where do you see that anyone is making claims of "real italian"?

                    I feel like the link in the first post must be bringing me to a different article than it brings everyone else.

                    1. re: tommy

                      They purport to have a cooking school in Italy where all their "chefs" are trained.

                      1. re: ChefJune

                        "proport" = have an ad implying that

                        1. re: ChefJune

                          Hardly evidence that they claim to serve "real Italian" food, which is simply false.

                          1. re: tommy

                            The WSJ article quotes the OG president:

                            "We don't use the word authentic," to describe the Olive Garden experience, Mr. Caron says. The chain prefers "Italian inspired."

                3. 1% of the population really care for and understand food. About 25% of that 1% are real "foodies" and/or Chowhounds.

                  Olive Garden is going after that 99%, not the 25% of the 1% that are alive and well on these boards.

                  15 Replies
                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I suspect even many of the 99 percent can tell, after one bite of, for example, OG's linguini in white clam sauce, that it is gluey crap.

                    i remember the first time I went to OG, ordered this, and figured I got a badly made dish. I was still laboring under the misapprehension that OG was a real Italian, or at least a decent Italian-American, restaurant. The second time, at different OG in another state, I got the same mess, and the little light bulb went off.

                    1. re: Bob W

                      Based on the article, OG serves their pasta soft because most of their customers prefer it that way.

                      1. re: Bob W

                        But, Bob W, like I said up above, you are NOT the 99%.

                        In fact, you are not even the 75% of the remaining 1%.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          ipse, i appreciate the kind words, but I'm pretty sure I could pick a random person off the streets in Providence, or Boston, or New York, and the odds are that person would know that the OG linguini with white clam sauce is not very good. 8>D

                          If I found myself at an OG nowadays, I'd probably order something like lasagna, for which overcooking might not be the kiss of death.

                          1. re: Bob W

                            I'm pretty sure I could pick a random person off the streets in Providence, or Boston, or New York, and the odds are that person would know that the OG linguini with white clam sauce is not very good.

                            Judging by the crowds at most Olive Gardens these days, I'd bet you'd be wrong.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              There are even a few CH who will admit to liking their pasta soft - or at least not al dente.


                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                ipse, I counted only 4 OG's in Providence, Boston, and New york, combined. These are cities where natives know real Italian,.and where OG may fear to tread. In contrast, metro Dallas, which is a wasteland for real Italian (except for Lucia ), has 10 OG's.

                                I think Bob W has a good point.

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  Thanks Veggo.

                                  My point, btw, is not about overcooked pasta (although the pasta is overcooked), it's about the fact that the white clam sauce, which should be light, thin even, at OG is what I would call viscous.

                                  I would agree with ipse that the crowds at OG simply don't know any better, and I am not surprised by Veggo's findings that OGs are sparse in cities where people know Italian food. Two different universes.

                                  1. re: Bob W

                                    OG is safe and relatively cheap for the amount of food that you get. People are drawn to the unlimited salad and breadsticks. I know that the Senior Set in my area are drawn to the unlimited soup and salad lunch special that is like $5 or something.

                                    Many people associate quantity with quality. If the plate of food is huge or just looks huge, it must be good.

                                  2. re: Veggo

                                    The paucity of Olive Garden's in/around Boston has less to do with demographics than it does with real estate prices.

                                    Most chains are usu. situated in exurbs where real estate is cheap and plentiful.

                                    Not too many Olive Garden's in Los Angeles, for example, but go out to the outskirts of the city, and they are aplenty.

                                    Same with Dallas. There are a few in Dallas proper, but many of the Olive Gardens are located in the suburbs of Dallas, e.g. Irving, Abeline, Duncanville, etc.

                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      As mentioned in the article, these casual dining outposts are mostly in the suburbs, not the city proper. Expand your search to a 25-mile radius of those cities and you're sure to find more of them. I can think of three in the Boston orbit alone, not counting south of the Hub. Their clientele are not city-dwellers, but commuters, more often families with children than you'd see in an urban restaurant at the same price point.

                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        I am saddened to report that I walk past the Olive Garden at 22nd and 6th in NYC on an almost nightly basis and frequently the line of people holding buzzers waiting to be seated is out the door.

                                        1. re: charmedgirl

                                          "I am saddened..."

                                          No need to be...those employees have a job & the line of people out the door are able to afford an evening out.

                                          1. re: charmedgirl

                                            Can you imagine what would happen to the world caper supply if all those buzzers were in hands connected to good palates?

                              2. I'm not sure they'll get "foodie" types to eat their exotic foods. I sometimes find myself at an OG and the very last thing I'm ordering is something "exotic". I usually look for something "safe" which would be as far from exotic as possible on their menu. My thought: if they can't really get pasta right, what are the chances of them getting something "exotic" right?
                                OTOH, if they can possibly "turn on" the unwashed masses to pesto, capers, etc., it's not necessarily a bad thing. Who knows, they might like these "new" flavors and try them out in other places - maybe even a real, good restaurant. Anything that has the potential of improving the palates of the vast majority of Americans can't be a bad thing. They may have to take "baby steps" into it like what OG is doing with the gnocchi in the soup, for starters. Eventually, everyone will want better, more authentic food (by "eventually" I’m talking decades). Until then, they have to serve what their customers want - a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy of "they want mediocre food, then that's what we have to give them". Change takes time.
                                For me, I will still have a tough time ordering something at the OG that doesn't fall into the safe category. By the way, they actually do have a cooking school type facility in Tuscany but then again FWIW, every chain has some type of cooking, test, demo kitchen.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: bobbert

                                  I completely agree with bobbert. If I find myself at a typical chain, Olive Garden, Red Lobster etc., the absolute LAST thing I look for on the menu is something "exotic" and likely expensive. I always try to play it safe and usually try to order something healthy or at least less bad for me than the rest of the menu. Even that usually fails though, At Long Horn steakhouse with family this summer, I ordered the fish (some mild white fish, forget which) trying to play it safe and healthy. Well, the fish came out so over cooked that I could literally pick up the entire filet from one end, like a piece of beef jerky. The manager offered a new dish, but I just asked for a second sweet potato instead!

                                  1. re: Rick

                                    I do what you do, but you have to order in their "wheelhouse." For example, I can have a decent meal at Applebee's if I have to, but I've learned not to try to order anything healthy as that's a big, big fail in every way. If I just give in and order a cheeseburger or sandwich, it's usually much better. Same goes for Long Horn. It's a steakhouse - fish there is always going to be frozen and the last thing they excel in - get a steak, you know? They even have a serviceable burger.

                                    1. re: rockandroller1

                                      Many years ago, I tried to be healthy at TGIFriday's, and ordered a piece of tuna. It was so overcooked and dried out you could have planked shad on it.

                                      1. re: Bob W

                                        Fish at a chain restaurant? Frozen and overcooked and likely over-sauced. Hardly worth the consideration. As rockandroller1 suggests, sick with what might be decent.

                                        1. re: tommy

                                          Stopped at a 99 restaurant once with a few people. One guy ordered the swordfish. I was thinking "that is not a good move" but being that he was an adult I figured I'd keep my mouth shut. Needless to say, he didn't think it was very good. I wanted to shout at him "No Shit, you idiot!" At a chain, play it safe and eat what they are supposed to be good at.

                                          1. re: bobbert

                                            Other than Red Lobster, what chain would you recommend for an older diner who wants a safe fish dish that is not heavily seasoned and definitely not seasoned with anything "Cajun" or otherwise spicy and wants to eat at somewhere with a familiar name?

                                            1. re: FoodPopulist

                                              Legal Sea Food. Although I guess what matters more is what restaurants are near

                                              1. re: FoodPopulist

                                                Bonefish grill is surprisingly good. Outback Steakhouse does a decent salmon if you them to go easy on saucing/salting.

                                                  1. re: FoodPopulist

                                                    I wouldn't, largely. I would get a vegetarian dish if for whatever reason I didn't want to eat chicken (their wheelhouse) or beef (2nd place).

                                      2. Planning our company party this year, one sample menu had gnocchi on it. I showed it to a coworker and the immediate response was "I wouldn't eat it." He had no idea what it was and even after I explained, he said no way. The majority of other employees polled said the same. If they hadn't seen it or tried it before, they wouldn't touch it.

                                        10 Replies
                                        1. re: mojoeater

                                          Buca di Beppo has Gnocchi al Telefono - gnocchi with enough mozzarella to make stringy 'telephone wires'. I though it was pretty good, though I'll admit that I've never had freshly made gnocchi (just the semidried ones from Italy).

                                          1. re: paulj

                                            treat yourself one of these times -- well-made fresh gnocchi is something to write home about.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              I doubt if my first attempt would be 'well-made'.

                                              1. re: paulj

                                                Oh, I've never made them, either -- just that if you ever find them on a menu, try them.

                                                The difference between semi-dry and fresh gnocchi is a lot like the difference between fresh and canned asparagus...hard to believe it's even the same stuff.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  They are actually quite easy to make. Making them pretty with the fork ridges, not so much. Once you pour the sauce on, you don't see the ridges anyway ;o)

                                                  But they are light as a feather and melt in your mouth.

                                                  1. re: Manassas64

                                                    Isn't the proportion of flour to potato critical for that light texture?

                                                    I don't frequent the sort of restaurant that is guaranteed to have hand made gnocchi. Seattle isn't known for its Italian restaurants, and when I lived in Chicago I paid more attention to Italian beef than to fresh pasta offerings.

                                                    1. re: paulj

                                                      It's the proportion in that you have to work fast to not overwork the dough. You have to put mix the riced potatoes into the flour mixture to form the dough. You need to knead fast to get it mixed and to the right texture. LIdia Bastianich says no more than 3 minutes. If you move too slow you have to keep adding flour and then you get lead balls.

                                                  2. re: sunshine842

                                                    Pardon but why do you call them semi-dry? They are fully dry. Otherwise they'd mildew and rot.

                                                    1. re: pdxgastro

                                                      The gnocchi that I buy are in a sealed package, and only take a few minutes to cook. That's a far cry from the fully dry tortellini that take 20 minutes to rehydrate and cook.

                                                      1. re: paulj

                                                        Yeah but that's because they are made with fully cooked potatoes.

                                          2. I didn't tell y'all about the time I tried to be healthy at the churrascaria and visited the salad bar for something green, did I?
                                            Stay with the restaurant's core competence, and don't dare them to fail.
                                            Allow them to be other than what they are.

                                            1. Literally JUST spoke to someone asking for directions to Olive Garden. Told him there wasn't one in town but there were some great local places. Not interested. "What about Applebee's?" Sigh.

                                              13 Replies
                                              1. re: mojoeater

                                                The sum of my fathers wisdom, which has served me well thus far in life is that "people are stupid, and there isn't a damned thing you can do about it."

                                                1. re: laststandchili

                                                  I'll add George Carlin's classic:

                                                  "Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are stupider than that!"

                                                  1. re: MandalayVA

                                                    Carlin was being too kind, and generous.

                                                  2. re: laststandchili

                                                    People who don't share your taste in food are "stupid?" LOL!

                                                    1. re: tommy

                                                      wow. You must have really long arms to be able to reach that conclusion.

                                                        1. re: tommy

                                                          laststand's comment about stupid people was in response to mojoeater's remark about someone they spoke to on the phone...there was nothing in there about deriding anyone for not agreeing with their taste.

                                                          Mojo didn't say what kind of local restaurants there were...they could have been chicken-fried steak for all we know...it was more a comment that the caller didn't want to consider a local place - they were locked on a soulless national chain.

                                                          It's a sad statement about the existing support for independent restaurants -- nothing about kind of food mentioned.

                                                          (yes, I've had crummy meals at independents, and decent -- not great -- meals at chains...)

                                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                                            "the caller didn't want to consider a local place - they were locked on a soulless national chain."

                                                            Yeah, stupid.

                                                            1. re: tommy

                                                              Maybe not stupid. Maybe with fussy children. Maybe with an older person who wanted something familiar. Maybe just wanted to know what they could expect.

                                                              1. re: chicgail

                                                                "wanted to know what they could expect..."


                                                                Yup, I've definitely been that person, when on the road traveling, after many bad independent restaurant meals. Once, with Mr. Pine and my Mom, we were in a little burg in the south, stopped at the only greasy-spoon diner open for early breakfast. Mr. Pine and I ordered bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy--the whole Land O' Gravy spiel. Mom ordered a bowl of cornflakes. Two hours later, on the road, Mr. Pine and I were turning green, nauseous. Mom said, "why do you think I ordered cereal?" Ah, the wisdom of the "older person who wanted something familiar." Yeah, just one anecdote, I know, but we still talk about that bit of wisdom.

                                                  3. re: mojoeater

                                                    About 20 years ago I found myself in Wilmington, NC (which I now know is a great chow town) with a craving for barbecue. I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce and asked the older gent manning the information desk. I made his day.

                                                    1. re: Bob W

                                                      I've stayed in hotels and B&Bs a lot and every time I ask for a recommendation I get the "list of chains." I had to really twist this B&B owners arm one time because he had been burned so many times by guests who didn't like his suggestions so he would only tell people to go to Applebees. LOL I had to guarantee him I would not complain about his suggestions.

                                                      1. re: Manassas64

                                                        LOL I can believe it, in many places. But you've never stayed over in Rehoboth/Dewey/Lewes, DE, have you? Plenty of nice B&Bs, and while they do have some chains, the area has awesome, nonchain restaurants. Any B&B owner in that area who recommended chains over independent spots would be tarred and feathered. 8>D

                                                        I can see chain hotels giving you a list of chains, but B&Bs? You'd think someone daring to stay at a B&B would "risk" a meal at a local establishment. But I guess it's not so simple.