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Olive Garden, Red Lobster Move Back on Anti-Obamacare Policies

Olive Garden, Red Lobster Move Back on Anti-Obamacare Policies

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After much backlash, Darden decides to stick with full-time employees

After much backlash over their initial plan of cutting workers' hours in test markets, Darden restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) has announced that they are still commited to full-time employees.

Back in October, Darden announced plans to transfer workers to part-time status, in hopes of keeping down employee health care costs after Obamacare starts in 2014, requiring large companies to give insurance to full-time workers.

Darden announced today that the restaurants, including Capital Grille and Longhorn Steakhouse, will not be bumping full-time workers to part-time, and restaurants will still have full-time employees, even after health care regulations go into effect.

According to a spokesperson, internal surveys showed that employee and customer satisfaction went down at restaurants where more part-time workers were hired. "What that taught us is that our restaurants perform better when we have full-time hourly employees involved," a representative told AP.

By 2014, all of Darden's full-time employees will have the option of signing onto a Darden insurance plan, which will have the same benefits across the board.

Olive Garden Suffering From Bad PR After Anti-Obamacare Comments

Darden Restaurants, Inc. &mdash owner of Red Lobster and Olive Garden &mdash is battling back negative press attention in light of its October announcement that the company will use Obamacare as a reason to shift to part-time employees.

On Tuesday, the company released a statement revising down its prediction of profits, which led to a huge drop in stocks. Darden attributed the change to the negative attention around its stance on Obamacare, and promised to deal with the health care reform law &ldquoin ways that work for our employees&rdquo:

&ldquoIn light of these upcoming changes, we are being cautious about our sales and earnings forecast for the full year,&rdquo [Darden&rsquos Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Clarence Otis] continued. &ldquoOur outlook for the year also reflects the potential impact, though difficult to measure, of recent negative media coverage that focused on Darden within the full-service segment and how we might accommodate healthcare reform.&rdquo [..]

&ldquoWe are also committed to accommodating healthcare reform in ways that work for our employees and guests. Darden is a strong business which continues to generate solid cash flows that will support appropriate reinvestment in our brands, effective debt management and consistent dividend growth.&rdquo

Under the Affordable Care Act, any business with 50 more full-time workers is required to offer a health care option to its employees by 2014. If a company chooses not to, and its workers instead seek subsidized care in the public exchanges, the company must pay a penalty.

Darden is one of several companies threatening to fire employees, switch workers to part time, or freeze hiring because of the health care law. One Applebee&rsquos franchise owner, the CEO of Papa John&rsquos Pizza, and a Denny&rsquos franchise CEO have made similar threats.

In addition to potentially earning those companies bad press, their complaints about the health reform law are off-base. In reality, Obamacare will, over time, decrease health care costs. It will also likely lead to more satisfied workers, competitive hiring, and higher rate of employee retention.


AP is reporting that, in an effort to stem the negative attention, Darden will announce Thursday that they will not be moving any workers to a part-time schedule because of Obamacare. The company is, however, keeping the option open of relying more heavily on part-time employees in the future. Ultimately, reports a Darden spokesman, they tested a shift to part-time staff and found a decline in satisfaction all around:

After Darden&rsquos tests were reported in October, the company received a flood of feedback from customers through its website, on Facebook and in restaurants, said Bob McAdam, who heads government affairs and community relations for Darden. Additionally, he said that internal surveys showed both employee and customer satisfaction declined at restaurants where the tests were in place.

&ldquoWhat that taught us is that our restaurants perform better when we have full-time hourly employees involved,&rdquo he said&hellip McAdam declined to give specifics on the internal surveys but said the decline was &ldquoenough to make a decision.&rdquo

The Underwhelming Reason Restaurants Give You Bread Before You Order

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that most — if not all — self-respecting sit-down restaurants offer a free basket of bread to their patrons. (Visions of steaming hot Olive Garden breadsticks, The Cheesecake Factory’s famous brown bread, and Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuits are dancing around in our thoughts right about now.) But have you ever sat down and wondered why that is? From a business standpoint, it doesn’t make sense: Giving customers the chance to fill up on bread they haven’t paid for before they eat their meals?

It sounds crazy, and while we love any and all free bread (the more food, the better!), we’re not alone in being confused. In fact, lots of people are curious about this very question, and several interesting theories — many from people who have worked in the service industry — have been raised in online chat groups. Hospitality is among one of the most popular answers several Reddit users on a thread in the “No Stupid Questions” sub-Reddit claim that giving out bread is just another way of fostering good cheer among diners. They point out that the expression to “break bread” with people means to welcome them, or in some cases, to forgive them.

Others, however, say that those seemingly generous bread baskets are just a trick to make us even hungrier. White bread is a refined carbohydrate, so our blood sugar rises almost immediately after eating it. (Our body then responds by releasing the hormone insulin — which makes us not only tired and lethargic, but hungrier than we were before.) And still others argued that free bread is simply expected these days if they’re charged for it, customers will be less likely to come back.

So, what’s the actual answer? Well, it’s not very flattering, but it makes the most sense: Customers are pains when they’re waiting, according to waitress Kimberly Lewis, and bread essentially helps keep them quiet and patient while they wait at their table. That basket of bread — or chips, or breadsticks, depending on the restaurant — helps ward off “hangriness,” and we all know how our tempers flare when we’re starving. Free baskets of bread equal happy, not-angry customers? Sounds like a win-win to us.

Of course, we’re sure there are plenty of waiters or restaurant-owners out there who may maintain that bread is simply a way to welcome their guests — which is what we’d like to think, too. But at the end of the day, we’re just happy to be eating free carbs — no matter the reason!

Is all this bread talk making you hungry? Check out this easy sourdough recipe:

After Backlash, Olive Garden and Red Lobster Won't Cut Full-Time Employees

Looks like Olive Garden and Red Lobster won't be cutting back employees to part-time to save money in healthcare costs after all. Parent company Darden Restaurants, Inc. announced in October that it was planning to hire more part-time workers in four test markets, a move that would protect the company from having to provide basic health coverage to full-time employees when healthcare reform — aka the dreaded Obamacare — takes effect. This decision inevitably led to the same kind of public backlash other chains have received for their anti-Obamacare statements. According to the AP, "both employee and customer satisfaction declined at restaurants where the tests were in place" — and now Darden rushes in with an update.

As a rep stresses that the move to part-time employees was only a test, a press release declares that, "None of Darden's current full-time employees, hourly or salaried, will have their full-time status changed as a result of healthcare reform." It goes on to explain that new and existing restaurants will continue to have full-time employees "because that is what it takes to fully deliver the experiences guests expect" — and that these employees "will have access to the same insurance plan coverage." Phew, now Olive Garden servers will be able to keep those endless breadsticks coming in their characteristic timely-ish fashion. Here's the press release:

Darden Provides Update on its Restaurant Staffing Plans Under Healthcare Reform Company Announces Commitments to its Current Full-Time, Hourly Employees

ORLANDO, Dec. 6, 2012 -- Darden Restaurants, Inc. today provided an update on its full-time staffing plans for 2014 following thorough testing of potential changes in the composition of its workforce in connection with healthcare reform. The company has determined that: None of Darden's current full-time employees, hourly or salaried, will have their full-time status changed as a result of healthcare reform.

Each of Darden's new and existing restaurants will have full-time hourly employees because that is what it takes to fully deliver the experiences guests expect.

In 2014, all of Darden's full-time employees, including hourly, salaried and executive employees, will have access to the same insurance plan coverage.

Darden's current full-time population includes approximately 45,000 employees.

Darden Chairman and CEO Clarence Otis commented: "Although our workforce historically has been heavily part-time, we have always had a significant number of full-time employees and they are integral to our success. The data we have collected during our test around guest satisfaction and employee engagement has only reinforced this. As we think about healthcare reform, while many of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's rules and regulations have yet to be finalized, we are pleased we know enough at this point to make firm and hopefully reassuring commitments to our full-time employees."

Drawing Up a Menu for America

The $87 billion casual dining sector is in the doldrums, and analysts don’t see much improvement in the months ahead. Clarence Otis Jr., 50, the chairman and chief executive of Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other chains, said consumer uncertainty, prompted by higher gas prices and interest rates, was mostly to blame.

Mr. Otis, who joined Darden in 1995 as vice president and treasurer at the time it was spun off from General Mills, discussed the industry’s move to offer spicier entrees and bring in celebrity chefs, as well as his company’s outlook during a recent conversation. Following are excerpts:

Q. How long do you anticipate the slump in the casual dining sector will continue?

A. All restaurant categories have come down, even quick-service has come down since April, growing a little slower. When we look at ’07, I think people feel like it probably won’t get any softer. How long this period lasts? Who knows?

Q. How can a chief executive turn things around in such an environment?

A. When people are cutting back on their visits, you want to be one of the favorites. It’s not good enough to be fourth in the rotation when they cut back to three. You want to be a top three because they are valuing that dollar even more. So I think we came into the period in good shape because Olive Garden has been a strong operation for quite a while, and Red Lobster started to really focus on operating better about three years ago when the new management team came in place. That probably explains why we’ve done better on a relative basis.

Q. UBS recently upgraded your stock from neutral to buy. What led to that?

A. I think people on the Street, the analyst community, are starting to value the consistency.

Q. Casual dining restaurants have responded to the slump in the sector by offering more upscale fare. Has that made a difference?

A. It does make a difference. Our view is that people’s dining preferences and habits change very slowly. But they do change and they are constantly evolving. So if you look today and you compare it to 10 years ago, there’s significant differences.

Q. How can a restaurant chain elevate its reach without raising prices?

A. It’s not about putting more on your plate, in terms of portion size, more steak, more this, more that. It really is about flavor and seasonings. And flavors and preparation styles don’t cost any more. In fact, you may be able to take protein off if you raise the flavor bar enough. It may cost you more labor, so I don’t think the net margins go up as a consequence of that. But that’s how you change the mix.

Q. Your Smokey Bones chain has struggled, and you have tinkered with the format, including a grill house concept. What do you expect to happen with the chain?

A. It is pretty similar with what happened with our other smaller concept, Bahama Breeze. In both cases, what we developed turned out to be more niche-y than we wanted. So people like it, but they don’t go with the kind of frequency that we need to make our model work. And so we’ve needed to try to broaden it and increase the frequency.

Q. Darden Restaurants recently announced that it would begin eliminating trans fat from the fry oil at Red Lobster and Olive Garden. What is the significance of that for your restaurants?

A. Frying oil is significant for both of them so that’s a big deal in terms of various menu items. It’s a great step but it’s a first step. The next step — we’ve been working on it and our vendors have been working on it — is trans fat that is in the product as opposed to the oil. It’s been slower to success there. We’ve done lots of testing with the oils over a two, two-and-a-half-year period. The key is to make the transition without having an adverse effect on taste. We’ve done that with oils. Doing that with some of the products that have trans fat has been slower going. Baked goods would be the toughest to eliminate and really maintain the texture and the flavor that people expect.

Q. If you were forced to choose among your restaurants for a meal, where would you go?

A. Oh boy. I like them all. Red Lobster, away from Seasons 52, is the easiest place to eat healthy given the health benefits of fish in general. That’s probably where I am.

Steak 'n Shake

Steak 'n Shake has been around for the better part of a century, but entering 2021, its days seem numbered.

The restaurant chain known for its "steakburgers" and milkshakes is another outlet whose problems began prior to coronavirus. Steak 'n Shake began closing stores a few years ago. Since the end of 2018, it had permanently closed more than 70 locations. According to Restaurant Business Online, the chain's sales dropped at least five percent each quarter since the middle of 2018.

As of May 2018, the company had a nearly $160 million loan still outstanding. Moody's Investors Service and S&P Global downgraded its credit rating and predicted the chain "will face extreme challenges" trying to refinance. The brand has been trying to find new ways to improve its finances, namely switching to a franchising business model. But even that idea seems to be shaky at best.

Exactly how bad is the situation at Steak 'n Shake? Its parent company's CEO has resorted to the idea of cutting out the signature cherries that have adorned the top of the chain's milkshakes for eight decades. He believes it will save $1 million a year.

Papa John's, Applebee's And Others Pay Huge Price For Anti-Obamacare Politicking

It turns out that being a good corporate citizen is as important to selling pizzas as the thinness of the crust or the quality of the cheese.

If you don’t believe it, just ask Papa John CEO, John Schnatter.

As covered—and criticized—in this column in great detail, Mr. Schnatter decided to mix his politics with his pepperoni when suggesting that he would be cutting the work hours for Papa John employees in order to bring them below the 30 hour per week threshold that would require Schnatter to provide his employees with healthcare benefits.

It turns out, the pizza eating public did not approve.

Indeed, so serious was the reaction that Schnatter was forced to publish an op-ed piece where he sought to convince us that he never really intended to cut back worker hours but had simply been speculating on what he might do in response to the legislation.

According to YouGov BrandIndex, a leading marketing survey that measures brand perception in the marketplace (called "Buzz"), Papa John’s had good reason for concern as the pizza chain’s brand identity has plummeted from a high of 32 on election day, to a remarkably low score of 4 among adults who have eaten at causal dining restaurants during the past month.

Papa John is not alone in his anti-Obamacare misery.

Fast food server, Applebee’s, possessed a healthy Buzz score of 35 before Zane Terkel, CEO of one of the company’s largest franchisees, appeared on television to complain about the law and to announce that he would not be building more restaurants or hiring any more workers in response to his objections to Obamacare.

Applebee’s “pre-Terkel” Buzz score of 35 now sits at a pathetic 5.

I don't imagine Mr. Terkel will be getting many Christmas cards this year from other Applebee’s franchise owners.

While these corporate complainers have sought to explain away the hit they are experiencing at the hands of the public’s perception, one such company is facing the music straight on. Darden Restaurants, Inc.— owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse—has lowered its profit projections for the quarter ending November 25 th , acknowledging that its bad numbers are the result of poorly performing promotions, Superstorm Sandy and…wait for it…the poor publicity it engendered by its decision to test out a plan to cut back on healthcare costs by putting more workers on part-time schedules.

Check out these rather epic declines:

Hopefully, other businesses seeking to avoid their responsibilities under the healthcare law—such as Walmart who intends to cut back employee hours in the effort to push workers onto Medicaid rolls rather than take responsibility for their employees’ health care—will get the message.

Olive Garden, Others to Cut Worker Hours in Advance of Obamacare

Washington Free Beacon Staff • October 9, 2012 2:04 pm

The owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster will shift more employees to part-time status in a trial designed to minimize the impact of new requirements imposed by the Affordable Care Act.

Darden Restaurants, which owns the two chains among others, employs approximately 180,000 people, and will test the part-time strategy in four markets, according to the Associated Press.

Darden will stop offering full-time schedules to many of its employees in an attempt to combat the higher costs of Obamacare. Darden told the Orlando Sentinel that staffing changes are "just one of the many things we are evaluating to help us address the cost implications health care reform will have on our business. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the health care regulations and we simply do not have enough information to make any decisions at this time."

Despite the company's current approach to President Obama's signature legislative achievement, Darden has in the past had a very friendly relationship with the administration.

The company was granted a waiver for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 for more than 30,000 of its employees, according to the New York Times.

The chief executive officer of Darden Restaurants, Clarence Otis, has contributed more than $94,000 to federal candidates during the last three cycles, almost entirely to Democrats. Otis has donated at least $4,600 to Obama and $59,300 to the Democratic National Convention since 2007. In July 2011, Otis had lunch with Obama to discuss jobs and the economy. According to the White House visitor logs, Otis has visited the Obama White House at least three times, including a meeting with Valerie Jarrett just one month before Obamacare was signed into law.

Darden has been an ardent supporter of Michelle Obama’s very controversial "Let’s Move" initiative. In September 2011, Michelle Obama endorsed menu changes at Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Olive Garden’s "Tour of Italy" packs an impressive 1,450 calories, 74 grams of fat, and 3,830 milligrams of sodium. Red Lobster’s "Admiral’s Feast" clocks in at a measly 1,280 calories, 73 grams of fat, and 4,300 milligrams of sodium.

Share All sharing options for: Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks

In the fall of 1889, when he was 41 years old, the painter Paul Gauguin was brutally, furiously alone. Famous now for his saturated, almost hallucinatory paintings of life in Tahiti, at the time he was living in Brittany, still two years away from his first visit to French Polynesia. He was penniless and adrift, trying to paint his way through the devastations of his dying marriage, his rejection by the cliques of the Parisian art establishment, and the precarity of his friendship with Vincent van Gogh, who shortly before Christmas had assaulted him with a razor and, after Gauguin’s departure that evening, used the same blade to cut off his own ear.

Gauguin and Van Gogh had a tumultuous acquaintance, one that served both men better in writing than in person. In their extensive correspondence, Gauguin — originally a stockbroker — refined his beliefs about the purpose of art. Impressionism had thundered into the salons, upending classical formality and with it the rubrics by which a painting could be considered a success. Beauty was no longer the standard, nor was faithful representation of a subject the artist himself was now part of the consideration, judged by the nuance of his thoughts and his facility with their artistic evocation. Gauguin was dazzled by this idea of art as a vehicle for emotion, a way to depict not things or people, but their essences.

A religious man, he found profundity in the practice of art: the brushes and paints, the forms and colors on the canvas, and the distillation and expression of his own mind. It was from that last point that his solitude sprang. Gauguin’s contemporaries, including Van Gogh, found it inoffensive — even useful! — to paint from life, referring to models and objects and scenery. To Gauguin, direct observation was anathema, a tool for overwriting the memories and emotions that make a painting worthwhile. He was furious at his cohort for their weakness, disdainful of their inability to see the truth in his vision. He painted it: a garden of sinuous trees, with primitive, black-clad figures in the background hazily merging with the twilight landscape. Filling the foreground is a figure with blazing orange hair and beard, his face — Gauguin’s face — rendered in intricate detail, full of life and warmth, looking to the ground with an expression of infinite wisdom and sorrow.

“There I have painted my own portrait,” he wrote of the work. “But it also represents the crushing of an ideal, and a pain that is both divine and human. Jesus is totally abandoned his disciples are leaving him, in a setting as sad as his soul.” Gauguin found great richness in the story of Jesus, and often painted himself as the savior. He called this painting, which now hangs in the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers, or, Christ in the Garden of Olives.

There are two globally renowned olive gardens: Gethsemane, the grove where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his betrayal and crucifixion, its agony painted by Gauguin and by hundreds of other painters, and the fictional Tuscan hillside that lends its name to Olive Garden, a massive restaurant chain with more than 800 locations in North America. The two appear to be unconnected: According to Darden Restaurants, owner of the Olive Garden chain, the phrase is intended to call to mind ideas of the olive harvest and Tuscan authenticity, not the final, anguished night of a prophet, dark hours spent in prayer, wrath, and silence.

Despite the promises of the name, it can be a challenge to find actual olives at Olive Garden. The omission is intentional, though the irony is not. It's a simple matter of marketing: People don't like olives. They don't know what to do with them. They show up occasionally on the menu their most recent engagement, on a “Mediterranean flatbread,” seems to no longer be available, part of an unbroken chain of olive-adorned dishes that have languished, unordered and unloved, before being dispatched by less culinarily threatening options like Meatball Stuffed Pizza Fritta.

Still, there are two places you'll always find olives at Olive Garden, no matter which way the menu consultants declare that the wind is blowing: The bar, where green spheroids wait, limply piled, to be pressed into service for a martini, and in the salad bowls. Two black olives — exactly two — are supposed to be in every family-size bowl, though when I was at an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, my server admitted that about half her tables ask for them to be kept out, or simply leave them on the side.

She was a little surprised when I asked where all the olives were — she said it’s usually the middle-aged men who fling that joke at her, which maybe I should have seen coming. According to her, they all order the Tour of Italy, a three-way sampler of lasagna, chicken parm, and fettuccine alfredo. No one really wants to eat any olives. The other joke she gets, usually from the same sort of men, is “Where’s the garden?” No one actually wants to see a garden, they just want to make the pretty waitress blush.

This was the third Olive Garden I’d been to in two weeks, and in the weeks to come I’d eat at half a dozen more — a grand tour of Tours of Italy, a chain of chains stretching from New York to California. The brand is in the middle of a grand reimagining, an overhauling of its hundreds of stores, that will dispense with its tile and faux-stucco and genially middlebrow upholstery in favor of a more streamlined, anodyne aesthetic of white walls, dark wood, and colorblocking. It’s a massive undertaking — not all locations are transforming at once — so while some restaurants I went to have entered the chain’s glossy future, many were still the Olive Gardens of the prior era. In these, you can still find some olives: On the shoulder-height half-walls that carve cavernous dining rooms into sections, sit potted rows of faux olive trees, slim shoots sprouting dusty green leaves and clusters of dark plastic footballs. You can’t eat them, but they remind you that somewhere, the real thing is growing on a real tree, and maybe you could.

I feel an intense affinity for Olive Garden, which — like the lack of olives on its menu — is by design. The restaurant was built for affinity, constructed from the foundations to the faux-finished rafters to create a sense of connection, of vague familiarity, to bring to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and ease. Even if you’ve never been to the Olive Garden before, you’re supposed to feel like you have. You know the next song that’s going to play. You know how the chairs roll against the carpet. You know where the bathrooms are. Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return to over and over.

In that way, it’s just like any other chain restaurant. For any individual mid-range restaurant, return customers have always been an easy majority of the clientele, and chain-wide, it’s overwhelmingly the case: If you’ve been to one Olive Garden, odds are very high you’ve been to two or more. If the restaurant is doing it right, though, all the Olive Gardens of your life will blur together into one Olive Garden, one host stand, one bar, one catacomb of dining alcoves warmly decorated in Toscana-lite. Each Olive Garden is a little bit different, but their souls are all the same.

My own personal Olive Garden, the one of my childhood, the Olive Garden of which all subsequently visited Olive Gardens are projections, is in Matteson, Illinois, on a curb-edged island in the parking lot of a Quality Inn and Suites just off the I-57 interchange, across a six-lane street from the husk of an old shopping mall. It’s five miles to the south of where I went to high school, in a golf-and-doctors suburb five miles more, and you’re past the edge of Chicago’s exurban sprawl, staring down hundreds of flat, unbroken miles of corn and soy.

It’s not a coincidence that Olive Gardens tend to spring up near highways and shopping malls, within the orbit of mid-range hotels. Chain begets chain, or maybe chains are more comfortable among other chains — and in sufficient concentration they cause a little hiccup in the psychospace of reality, erasing any locality or sense of place, replacing it with a sanitized, brand-driven commercial hospitality. In downtown Salt Lake City or western Massachusetts or on the southern edge of the Chicago suburbs, wherever you see an Olive Garden, you’ll find something like a Quality Inn & Suites nearby. These accretions of commercial activity, stripped from geographic or historical identity, are what the French anthropologist Marc Augé talks about as “non-places.” (He also finds non-place in, of all places, Tahiti — specifically as seen through the eyes of a traveler, someone who is more interested in the fulfillment of his self-conception than in the spectacle that surrounds him.) What it means to be a non-place is the same thing it means to be a chain: A plural nothingness, a physical space without an anchor to any actual location on Earth, or in time, or in any kind of spiritual arc. In its void, it simply is.

Despite its flirtation with the existential abyss, a non-place isn't necessarily a bad thing for a place to be. It may be bad sometimes, or even frequently, but it isn’t always. One of the things I love about the Olive Garden, the reason I continue to love it, despite its gummy pasta and its maladaptive, kale-forward response to modern food culture, is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.

I haven’t been to the Matteson Olive Garden in nearly two decades, though I may have eaten there more than at any other restaurant in the world. Still, I have only fragmented, sensory memories. The symmetrical architecture, a centered door opening onto a red-lit bar, and carpeted archways leading off to a smoking section to the left and nonsmoking to the right. I couldn’t tell you what the plush dining chairs looked like, but I can still feel how their wheels defied the physics of friction with the smoothest, most silken bearings. The hazy dimness of the wood-framed booth my parents particularly loved, in the very middle of the middle section. The plasticky sheen of a square of tiramisu, formally presented on a dessert tray meant to entice us into a final course, and the small, circular perfection of the chocolate cake we ordered, an off-menu “special occasion cake,” which provided dessert for our family of five for the low cost of $8, a birthday lie, and the indignity of a staff serenade.

I was an inveterate orderer of the fettuccine alfredo, a habit I kicked once I got old enough to internalize the unseemliness of an oversized female body. Despite roughly annual visits to Olive Garden in the intervening years, I didn’t order the dish again for decades — not until a few weeks ago, at an Olive Garden in Glendale, California. I don’t walk around feeling like I’m old, but when I ordered the fettuccine alfredo, maybe I gave away a hint, and my friend asked how long it had been since I’d last had it. I said the words “20 years” out loud, and almost choked on how far away the present turns out to be from the past.

In the infinity of Olive Garden meals that make up my life, one stands out from the great glutinous mass of memory. It took place outside of Madison, Wisconsin, off a commercial strip that I vaguely remember abutting a retaining pond that was home to an extremely aggressive paddling of ducks. At this meal, two great things happened.

The first is that my boyfriend introduced me to toasted ravioli. This was — and remains — the single greatest thing Olive Garden has ever sold. “Toasted” is a euphemism for fried: The breadcrumb-coated squares of pasta are simultaneously crispy and chewy, filled with a savory meat paste that’s not dissimilar to the inside of a mild Jamaican beef patty. You dip them in warm marinara sauce, which comes in a ramekin on the side.

My boyfriend and I broke up a few weeks after we shared that meal, and when I next entered one of the many doors of the infinite and singular Olive Garden, I wanted the toasted ravioli appetizer, but I couldn’t find it on the menu. The toasted ravioli turned out to be a parable: I scanned the name of every dish on the menu, hoping the next and the next and the next would turn out to be the one I was looking for, and came up with nothing. Here’s the secret: They were right at the beginning all along. Tell your server you want to Create A Sampler Italiano, the very first thing listed on the menu, which involves selecting two or three items from a set of options, toasted ravioli among them, listed in the description in quotidian roman type. Then make every single choice the toasted ravioli.

The second great thing that happened is that as we were leaving, my boyfriend stopped at the host stand and asked for a bottle of salad dressing. The only thing at Olive Garden that comes close to the greatness of the toasted ravioli is the salad: hunks of iceberg and half-moons of red onion and the crumbly croutons and that shriveled little insouciant pepperoncini and those two contractually obligated olives, all drenched in some kind of mysteriously exquisite dressing, the only thing at the whole restaurant, including the wine list, that seems to have any interest in brightness or acidity. And it turns out that you can just buy bottles of it! To have in your home! What did we ever do to deserve such blessings?

I don’t remember what we ate, besides the toasted ravioli it didn’t register as particularly wonderful or particularly awful. This is how it should be. This is what chains are: a well-paved path down the middle, a place where convenience for the consumer is surpassed only by convenience for the seller. Be wary of chain restaurants that promise exceptionalism, be wary of promises of freshness or subtlety or sophistication. Food at an Olive Garden scale becomes a commodity the point of a commodity is that it is infinitely interchangeable.

It had been 20 years since I’d last had that fettuccine alfredo, which at the time was my very favorite food. I’m four inches taller now than I was when I was 15 I live in a louder, dirtier city I’ve been to Italy I’ve spent uncountable thousands of hours eating in and thinking about restaurants. I’ve changed, is what I’m saying, so maybe it’s me: The fettuccine alfredo I had in Glendale two weeks ago was awful.

Like so many foods that have been adopted into the American culinary pantheon, alfredo sauce has two simultaneous forms. There’s the version we’re used to eating, sold in heavy glass jars or ladled across chicken cutlets, a viscous concoction of garlic, milk, heavy cream, and the natural MSG of aged hard cheese. It can be magnificent, the particular magnificence of gastronomic absurdity: It seems almost biologically impossible to encounter such a dense concentration of fats and salts and glutamates and not respond with raptures.

Then, there is the real thing, an original recipe complete with cinematic origin story: a turn-of-the-century Roman restaurateur named Alfredo, a beautiful wife with a vanishing hunger, a plate of fettuccine drowning in butter and parmigiano, tossed and tossed and tossed until butter and cheese and water and air marry in a satiny emulsion, not adulterated by even a pinch of salt, until her appetites returned. It’s the sniffing refrain of a certain breed of culinary wiseass: “A real alfredo doesn’t have cream.”

I’m an alfredo opportunist, a willing advocate for whichever version of the sauce is in front of me. (Next time someone tells you all that cream is an abomination, ask them what they think butter is made from.) But what I was served at Olive Garden defies both my defense and my memories. On the Olive Garden menu, alfredo sauce is both weapon and balm. It comes over pasta, over chicken, over shrimp, over steak, in a standalone ramekin as a dipping sauce, spiked with hot sauce and declared to be “angry.” It’s the reason to order a dish, or it’s the thing that keeps you from hating it.

At least, it’s supposed to be. The pasta itself had no faults — it was competent, a nothingness, a minimum-viable-product that may or may not have been cooked in salted water — but the viscous whiteness puddled around it was pasty and gloppy, thick without being rich, a faintly savory nothingness. You could have used it as a binder for potato salad. You could have poured it over biscuits and called it gravy. You could have patched a hole in your wall.

The lobster ravioli was even worse, fishy how lobster should never be fishy, in an intensely concentrated way that didn’t remotely square up with the relatively small amount of seafood each raviolo contained — but it didn’t matter, because the mistake there belongs to the person ordering lobster ravioli at the Olive Garden. By the same principle, it’s no great achievement that the chicken parmigiana was good. It had also been good at Olive Gardens in Indiana and Times Square. It must be good. The whole thing falls apart if it’s not good. You can’t really go wrong with any of their permutations on the holy trinity of carbohydrate, tomato sauce, and cheese, which are all fundamentally the same. The cheese ravioli is the lasagna classico is the fried mozzarella is the eggplant parm is the (conceptually ludicrous) lasagna fritta. These are the backbones of the menu, the sun around which all other dishes orbit.

When the painting was finished, Gauguin considered Christ in the Garden of Olives to be the best work he had ever created, a vivid and intimate expression of the truth of his heart. To a friend, he wrote “It is a sad abstraction, but God knows that sadness is my cord.” To another friend, in a note sent with a sketch of the painting, he wrote “I keep the item at home,” explaining that he had no intention of ever sending it to be shown and sold. “The canvas is not meant to be understood.”

Gaugin did part with the work eventually, in an 1891 sale that funded his first visit to Tahiti, where he would later move and remain until his death. The serpentine olive trees that make up the painting’s background — which, because of his principled refusal to paint from life, were Gauguin’s own expression of olive trees, an abstracted imagining of them, intentionally filtered through his memories and miseries and anger — appeared again in works made during his time in Tahiti, their curvilinear forms repurposed as swooping palms and vines. The resemblance is particularly uncanny in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a monumental canvas painted over 1897 and 1898 that, like Christ in the Garden of Olives before it, Gauguin considered to be both an allegory for his philosophical devastation, and the pinnacle of his artistic achievements he meant to kill himself when the painting was done, but miscalculated the dose of arsenic.

The echoing forms of the olive trees may be why in 1908, five years after Gauguin’s eventual death in a Tahitian prison, an art adviser confidently (if erroneously) identified Christ in the Garden of Olives as painted in — and a depiction of — Gauguin’s tropical refuge, and urged a wealthy client from Bordeaux to buy it. It’s unclear whether Gauguin’s abstracted Mediterranean olive garden was a premonition of Tahiti, or if his interpretation of Tahiti was colored by the long shadows of his past. What’s clear is that the trees are not really olive trees, and they’re not really palm trees. They’re something else entirely and they both transcend and undermine the things they claim to be.

The well-paid suits who run Olive Garden have tried, many times, to breathe new life into their chain, and it always backfires spectacularly. They’ve flirted with small plates, they put kale and polenta on the menu, they recently started slicing the breadsticks down the middle and making sandwiches out of them. Most tables and bar seats have little unobtrusive video screens on which customers can hail their server for a refill, or pay $1.99 to test their trivia knowledge against other players who allegedly are real, but almost certainly are not. At most locations, the fake olive plants with their twisty branches have already been chucked in the trash, the walls have been un-stuccoed, and the chairs have been stripped of their exquisitely smooth-rolling wheels. By next year, they’ll all be gone.

Every time Olive Garden tries to freshen its image, to move away from its cultural role as a punchline for faux authenticity and mediocre mall food, everything collapses. Nobody wants to eat kale at Olive Garden. Nobody wants garlic hummus. We want soup and salad and unlimited breadsticks, we want never-ending bowls of pasta with a variety of sauces, we want giant glasses full of Coke and tiny wine glasses full of plonky reds and fruity whites. Just about the only stunt Olive Garden has ever pulled that’s been successful — and it’s been a raging success, an astounding, nearly unbelievable one — has been the Pasta Pass. For $100, you can buy a card that entitles you to seven weeks of unlimited unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and unlimited never-ending pasta bowls. Or you could buy it, if you were one of the 22,000 people who managed to snatch them up before they sold out in one second. One. Second. That’s how much no one cares if Olive Garden serves kale.

Darden, the company that owns Olive Garden, is publicly traded, and in the last two years, the stock has been steadily on the rise. This may be because in 2014, a hedge fund with a significant stake in the company delivered a 294-page treatise outlining all the ways Olive Garden was getting in the way of its own success, including giving away too much bread, not pushing enough alcohol, and overly dressing the salads. But I think the real lesson isn’t buried in a PowerPoint deck, it’s right there in the wild success of the Pasta Pass: Olive Garden’s biggest asset is, in fact, that none of the attempts to make it better are working. All the stunts and menu revamps and dining room redesigns are met by diners with indifference at best, and outright hostility at worst. Inevitably Darden retreats and regroups, falling back on the only thing that ever reliably gets people in the door: pasta, a lot of it, cheaply, with soup and salad and breadsticks, and a vague veneer of Italy.

Olive Garden has always gone to great lengths to claim its authentic Italianness, even in the face of overwhelming proof otherwise. This may have been different in the early ’80s, when the chain launched, and America was only beginning to shake off our understanding of the cuisine as a monolith of red sauce, red gingham tablecloths, and candles wedged into wicker chianti bottles. Relaxed trade agreements meant that Americans had easier access to real-deal products like extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, and serious Italian cheeses. Marcella Hazan had exploded onto the scene in the mid-1970s, with cookbooks that refused to Americanize recipes, techniques, or ingredients by the time the first Olive Garden opened in December 1982, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s The Silver Palate Cookbook had been a runaway bestseller for nearly a year, inculcating home cooks in the novel wonders of pancetta and pesto.

The rejection of red-sauce Italian-American is right there in the name, once you get past all the jokes about the lack of olives on the menu. A garden of olives! It’s lush, sun-drenched, exquisitely Mediterranean, with whispers of both the exotic and the old-world. “Olive Garden,” as a phrase, only implies Italian food — or Italian caricature, black-dressed nonnas and loud family gatherings and the indefinable absurdity of “hospitaliano” — because it asserts the validity of its connection so loudly that it can’t be ignored. Even in 1986, the chain’s advertising budget was in the millions.

Olive Garden’s authenticity hard-sell is less exciting now, in the age of ubiquitous, regionally genuine Italian food. For every mention of their “culinary institute” in Tuscany, there’s a Reddit AMA from an employee actually sent there, happy to debunk the fairy tale with tales of an off-season hotel and a couple of half-hour cooking demos. We can get pesto anywhere now, even at Subway, and balsamic vinegar is so uncool that it’s almost cool again. Some 35 years later, in a world bestrode by Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, a hint of rosemary or a red wine braise doesn’t go quite as far as it used to. But Olive Garden has transcended Olive Garden, the way Gauguin’s olive trees transcended olive trees. It’s the ur-chain, a restaurant whose exquisite mediocrity — heightened, not undermined, by the flashes of greatness in the toasted ravioli, the salad, the shockingly delicious soups — is the very fabric of its appeal. It’s the subject of parody, like the MadTV sketch of a racist, vituperative Italian-American family gathered to eat horrifying food, and it’s immortalized in fine art — Chloe Wise’s installation Olive Garden of Eden is a marble block draped in romaine and croutons, lashed with oozy, willfully sexual splatters of Caesar dressing. Olive Garden doesn’t even serve Caesar salad. But it doesn’t matter.

What matters is this: Olive Garden is a machine of memory. You go to Olive Garden because you’ve always gone there. You bring your children there, and they grow up having always gone there. It is a restaurant that’s good at some things, a few of them on the menu, more of them about price and convenience and a general exhausted tolerance for unruly children and arguing couples. It is extraordinarily good at being a non-place. It’s uncannily good at being itself: A restaurant that calls on Italy without ever looking at Italy, that promises family without community, that is — in its ubiquity — nowhere, and is better for it. Every time it strays from itself, the collective force of memory intervenes, and it returns.

Healthy Recipe: Fettucini Alfredo

The dinner portion of fettucini Alfredo at Olive Garden has 1220 calories. My healthier version has 550 calories and tastes fantastic.

1 TBS Unsalted Butter (100 calories)
Minced Garlic
1/4 Cup Greek Yogurt (40 calories)
3 TBS Reduced fat cream cheese (100 calories)
1/4 Cup Shredded Parmesan Cheese (100 calories)
1 Cup Fettucini Noodles (200 calories)

Sautee minced garlic in butter. Add yogurt, cream cheese, and Parmesan cheese. Mix with a whisk until it slightly thickens. Toss with cooked fettucini noodles and serve.

Watch the video: Post Malone Takes Jimmy Fallon to Olive Garden (August 2022).