For many Americans, the first taste of “Italian” food they ever had was courtesy of their local Olive Garden. The chain, with its unlimited salad and breadsticks, is ubiquitous across America, and is constantly reinventing itself in an attempt to stay atop the charts. But even if you were one of the thousand people who purchased a Never Ending Pasta Pass last year (see below), we bet that there are some things you didn’t know about this chain.
Unlike most chain restaurants, which started with one independently owned restaurant that took off and grew organically over the years, Olive Garden was created with the intention of becoming a major chain. The first Olive Garden opened in Orlando in 1982, and by 1989 there were 145 locations. It quickly became the largest Italian-themed full-service chain restaurant in the United States, a position it still holds (Carrabba’s Italian Grill is in a distant second place).
Over the years, the chain’s parent company, Darden, has been relentless in its efforts to keep Olive Garden at the top of the heap, constantly making tweaks to keep it from fading from headlines. Whether it’s gimmicky promotions (like the aforementioned Never Ending Pasta Pass, which gave 1,000 customers the opportunity to eat all the pasta they could stomach over the course of seven weeks for $99), changing up formats (like putting an Olive Garden and Red Lobster in the same building and having them share a kitchen), head-turning cost-cutting moves (in 2012 they converted most of their staff to part-time in order to lower healthcare costs), or launching a new logo, the chain is refusing to rest on its laurels, for better or worse.
Olive Garden made headlines for the wrong reasons last year, when activist investors Starboard Value released a nearly 300-page slideshow that called the chain out on dozens of issues, including price increases, unsalted pasta water, and overcooked pasta. While bad for publicity, it seemed to light a fire under the company, and “thanks to the hard work our teams are doing to grow same-restaurant sales and control costs,” according to Darden CEO Gene Lee, the company reported in March that recent profits exceeded Wall Street’s expectations. For the time being, at least, the future looks bright.
It Took Off From Day One
Sales were strong from nearly the day that the first Olive Garden opened. Every new location was a relatively instant success as well, and sales soon matched that of the then-sister company Red Lobster.
Darden Was a General Mills Spinoff
Parent company Darden, which also owns chains like LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, and The Capital Grille, was originally the restaurants arm of General Mills. All General Mills restaurant holdings were spun off into a stand-alone company in 1995, named Darden after Bill Darden, the founder of Red Lobster (which was itself sold off in July 2014).