For many Americans, the first taste of “Italian” food they ever had was courtesy of their local Olive Garden, and it’s still millions of Americans’ first choice when they’re looking to go out for an Italian dinner. But even if you’re a loyal regular, we bet there’s a lot you don’t know about this 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). There are currently about 900 locations open nationwide, with more opening every year.
Olive Garden is constantly looking to stay current, even if that means swapping in zucchini-based “zoodles” for real pasta in an attempt to appeal to health-conscious diners or adding “Giant Italian Classics” or Never-Ending Stuffed Pastas to the menu to appeal to those who... aren’t so health-conscious. And who can forget the Never-Ending Pasta Pass? Read on for 15 things we bet you didn’t know about Olive Garden.
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.
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).
If the rustic stone façade of the restaurants reminds you of Tuscany, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Restaurants are modeled after a farmhouse in the town of Castellina in Chianti, Tuscany.
When Olive Garden launched, its main attraction was unlimited salad; so much so that the original slogan was “Good Times, Great Salad, Olive Garden.” Once soup and breadsticks were added to the mix, it was changed to “When you’re here, you’re family.” Since 2013, its primary motto has been “We’re all family here.” Fun fact: When the chain retired “When you’re here, you’re family,” Darden executive Dave George legally signed over the rights to the phrase while on air with talk show host Jimmy Fallon, who eventually passed them on to performer Post Malone.
Even if it’s dinner time, if you ask for a lunch menu (which is generally less expensive than the dinner menu), they’ll let you order from it.
There’s an expansive catering menu of family-style classics that you can pick up.
If you include your birth date when you sign up for Olive Garden’s eClub, you’ll receive an email with a coupon for a free appetizer or dessert a few days before your birthday every year. It's just one of the many chain restaurants that will give you something free on your birthday.
Fan of Olive Garden’s Italian dressing? Just ask for a bottle to take home the next time you’re there and your server will sell one to you.
Well, not a personal donation, but if you’re championing a charitable cause that benefits the community, you can submit a donation request (on the organization’s official letterhead) to the general manager of your local Olive Garden, making sure to include when the donation is needed and how it will benefit your community. A donation to your personal Hunger Relief Fund most likely won’t be granted, however.
Remember how, up until a few years ago, Olive Garden would brag about how it would send its cooks and managers to the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany,” a cooking school where they can learn the ins and outs of authentic Italian cooking? Well, according to Time, that’s stretching the truth a bit. The “school” is actually a restored hotel and restaurant in Chianti, Tuscany, which Olive Garden rents during the off-season between November and March. About a dozen chefs and managers visit weekly, and they spend most of their time sightseeing, which, honestly, still sounds pretty nice. After the truth was revealed, Olive Garden stopped talking about the school and scrubbed all references to it from their site.
If you want to try to replicate your favorite Olive Garden dishes at home, you can find recipes for dozens of appetizers, mains, sides, soups and sauces on their website. Fan favorites like the chicken parmesan and the now off-menu spinach and artichoke dip are easily made at home.You won’t find their breadstick recipe there, however, but you’ll find plenty of ideas for using breadsticks as a base in dishes like breadstick bread pudding.
While those chocolate mint candies you receive after your meal might look and taste similar to the popular Andes mints, they’re actually not the same candies you can buy at the store. These candies are actually two layers — one mint and one chocolate — while traditional Andes have three. When The Daily Meal reached out to an Olive Garden representative for more details, she confirmed that the company behind Andes mints custom-makes the two-layer version for the chain.
If you have even a passing interest in Olive Garden, we’re sure you’ve heard of its annual Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion, which has been allowing guests to gorge themselves on unlimited pasta, sauce and toppings (along with breadsticks and soup or salad) for the past 20 years. But in 2017, the company offered its first-ever Pasta Pass, which allowed 23,000 guests unlimited pasta bowls throughout the entire two-month promotion; and in 2018 they added on the Annual Pasta Pass, with which 1,000 pasta lovers could fill up on endless pasta all year long. They sold for $100 and $300 respectively, and they were almost comically difficult to procure: All the passes sold out within one second of going on sale. If you want to snag one of these when they (presumably) go on sale this year, all we can say is good luck!
Olive Garden has locations in Mexico, Brazil, Canada, El Salvador, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. There are also five outposts in Puerto Rico, and a couple Malaysian locations were open from 2015 to 2018. Thankfully, it’s not one of those regional chain restaurants we wish were national!
More from The Daily Meal: