Olive Garden is tearing down its Tuscan decor

Parent company Darden is trying to revamp the Italian food chain with a new look, updated logo, new uniforms and healthier fare.

By Jason Notte Feb 28, 2013 3:14PM
People walk into an Olive Garden restaurant in Huntington Beach, Calif. on June 19, 2012 (© Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)Remember when you were "family" as soon as you walked into an Olive Garden? Remember when the restaurants' exterior and interior were laden with every bit of faux-Italian kitsch under the Tuscan sun? Yeah, that's over.

Welcome to The O.G. In an attempt to turn around the flagging performance of its Olive Garden chain, parent company Darden International (DRI) is tearing down the stone-and-wood archways that have been in place since 2000 and sprucing up the logo.

After installing new Olive Garden President Dave George in January, cutting quarterly expectations for both its Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains and suggesting to The Associated Press that fewer Olive Gardens will open in the next year, a struggling Darden is getting ready to gut its Italian dining cornerstone down to the bottlomless breadsticks. The chain is promising to vary its menu, lower its prices and make it healthier and more "relevant." Unfortunately, it has done all this before with limited effects.

Back in October, Olive Garden introduced 600-calorie menu items and swapped its "When You're Here, Your Family Slogan" for the peppier "Go Olive Garden." The result? Olive Garden sales fell 1.2% for all of 2012. Now the chain is swapping the staff's white shirts and wide ties for the same black button-down shirt and black slacks customers see at just about every other casual-dining chain.

Extracting what remains of Olive Garden's personality may not solve the chain's personality crisis. Since Olive Garden's heyday in the early 2000s, fast-casual chains like Chipotle (CMG) and Panera (PNRA) have been chipping away at its customer base. NPD Group says casual-dining sales in general have been dropping steadily since early 2010 as diners 18 to 47 years old flee in droves. Unsustainable price specials like 2-for-$20 meal deals have eroded casual-dining's value.

While diners are spending 5.5% more at casual-dining chains that offer healthier options, they're spending a lot less at places like Olive Garden overall. Darden has repeatedly placed the blame for woes at Olive Garden and its other chains on Obamacare, payroll taxes and just about everything besides its food and prices. It's just dressing its old problems in some new clothing.

So, farewell fake Tuscan farmhouse and funny waiter ties. The American dining public that's slowly ditching Olive Garden for fast-casual and specialty chains like Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) eagerly awaits the staid, stainless steel specials factory that's coming next.

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Feb 28, 2013 3:34PM
I got a GREAT idea Olive Garden.  You want people to go to your restaurant?  Don't serve frozen and then reheated meals.  Get actual chefs and cooks in your kitchen to make fresh food. 
Feb 28, 2013 3:38PM
  It is not there look or there image that is the problem, it is the price of their food! when Americans income goes down food prices cannot go up! Lets face it, $54.00 for a meal is pretty steep for those on a fixed income.
Feb 28, 2013 3:53PM
You can change the exterior and interior all you want, if your food sucks people won't eat there.
Feb 28, 2013 3:38PM
Perhaps they will also reconsider the ongoing use of 'canned' sauces and start making their own, fresh sauces!!
Feb 28, 2013 3:33PM

Shame on Olive Garden for blaming Obamacare, etc on its poor performance.  Olive Garden is relatively expensive for what you get there.  They have not varied their menu much and it is rather difficult to find low cal, low fat options that taste good.  I really don't care what my servers wear and I have always enjoyed the exterior/interior design. 

Feb 28, 2013 3:29PM
They wouldn't be struggling if their top management were paid less and they would put out decent food.
Feb 28, 2013 4:16PM

Due to a lot of unglamorous business travel, I'd eaten at several Italian cuisine themed chain restaurtants many times.   Bertucci's, Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's, Carrabba's, California Pizza Kitchen, Pizzaria Uno, Olive Garden and the very regrettable Old Spaghetti Factory.   Skipping the Old Spaghetti Factory, the food offered at Olive Garden is of lower quality than most of the other restaurants I mentioned but in the same price range.   It small wonder they have slipped down the list of dining options for most diners.   Changing wait staff uniforms and renovating the restaurants isn't going to bring patrons back.   Offer higher quality food at better prices and they might have a chance.   Otherwise, I suggest they concentrate their business where there isn't any competition, so customers can't compare them to better restaurants.

Feb 28, 2013 3:43PM
You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still just a pig. Revamping the decor will do nothing to improve their horrible food.
Feb 28, 2013 3:55PM

2 Main Problems with Olive Garden? 1. Bad Food, 2. High Prices - more generally, service at the OGs I've been to is slow and poor.

Feb 28, 2013 3:48PM
If food trucks have crowds of people and Darden is worried about what their buildings look like...................well, I think they will regret staking out that decision.  Just sayin'
Feb 28, 2013 3:38PM

Once upon a time Olive Garden was a nice place to eat: Great atmosphere, good food, fast & friendly service. I enjoyed it.

Fast forward to present; the last couple times I went to Olive Garden the service was slow, definitely not friendly and food was mediocre. The topper was watching the cockroaches run up the walls and over behind the folks at the table across from us. While we did make an effort at being discreet in reporting them we just couldn't keep from laughing at how crazy it was.

Sorry Olive Garden but no more of your soup for me!

Feb 28, 2013 3:54PM
"Go Olive Garden"?? Are they going to hire cheerleaders as food servers now?
Feb 28, 2013 3:44PM
Maybe we are not that fussy about, Olive Garden is and have been great for my family, food was great and decor was O.K.  
Feb 28, 2013 4:28PM

People could care less about their décor – they care about the FOOD! I agree with some other comments from people saying that if they would concentrate on preparing good quality, fresh food, they would do better. All they serve is pre-frozen bricks of food that have been re-heated. Everything is pre-cooked and sold to them in massive solid chunks (including their sauces)…which they defrost and heat in a pan before serving to guests. This makes their food taste stale, like a TV dinner. I wouldn’t mind paying $16-$18 for fresh cooked food, but as it stands now, customers are paying a bundle for large servings of TV dinners.

Feb 28, 2013 3:53PM

I don't know what Olive Gardens you all go to but at least once a month/ sometimes twice we go to Henrietta/Rochester NY, Jefferson Rd. Olive Garden.  We live close to an hour from there so we hit the big city once a month to go to Olive Garden, Palmers, and Wegmans.  The service at this Olive Garden is the best ever.  Most are local college students.  They work in teams, and are extremely helpful, always stopping back at the table to see how your meal is. 


As far as the food goes, Olive Garden is my favorite Italian restaurant.  Just their commercials on tv are enough to draw me.  I love seeing the families and little kids.


Jefferson Rd. in Henrietta is restaurant row.  You have your choice of so many - Chilis, Joe's Crab Shack, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wings, Chipolte, Outback, etc., etc., etc.


Olive Garden will always remain my fav.

Feb 28, 2013 3:43PM

My family just LOVES the Zuppa Toscana.  I sure hope they don't get rid of that soup with their makeover and menu change.

Feb 28, 2013 3:52PM
BW3's food is not that good.  Also, I don't see how chipotle and panera are even comparible to olive garden.  Don't get me wrong, those places are good too, but they are more like fast food options than a sit down dinner restaurant.  Olive Garden is awesome and I'm excited to eat there tomorrow.
Feb 28, 2013 4:10PM
when people will realize there are very tasty, "home-made" food nice bistros enough around their neighborhoods with ground to earth individuals willing to give decent service .....just do your research...
Feb 28, 2013 3:30PM
It's like putting lipstick on a pig.
Feb 28, 2013 6:26PM
My last experience at OG was in Fort Worth, Texas 14 months ago.  I had taken my teenage daughter and her friend, my 8 year old daughter, my 85 year old mother, and my husband Christmas shopping at the mall.  My mother doesn't go out much, so we wanted a "sit down" meal, not mall court food.  We waited 30 minutes for a table in a half-empty restaurant.  BTW, I have NEVER walked into an OG and been seated promptly, no matter how empty they are unless it is lunchtime.  Someone told me they do that to encourage bar and appetizer purchases- I don't know if that is true, but I do wonder.  Anyway, they initially tried to seat us in a very noisy area, I asked if they could find somewhere quieter.  They seated us in an alcove, but the "background" music was so loud it made conversation impossible.  We had trouble hearing the waiter.  I asked to have it turned down and was told that wasn't possible.  I asked for a manager.  He said that it was company policy to keep it loud so customers had to talk over it because that made the room louder and "more exciting" and he was not allowed to turn it down. I  suggested that people dining at a sit-down restaurant weren't looking for a bar-type experience and that dinner conversation would be more interesting if you could hear your companions.  Still wouldn't budge.  I then played a card that I would rather not have- I pointed out that 2 members of my party were wearing hearing aids, that excessive background noise makes it impossible for them to hear conversation, and had he ever heard of the ADA?  Would he like to be on the news for discriminating against hearing-impaired customers?   He finally agreed to turn it down.  As he left, another nearby diner thanked me.  By the time we received our meals, the volume had slowly crept back up, conversation was impossible without shouting, and the dinner was ruined for my family.  I spent $100 for a mediocre meal in a terrible environment.  I complained and the managers solution was to offer me a coupon for half-off the second meal when I bought two the next time I was in.  There was not, and never will be, a next time.   I would much rather go to the really nice hole-in-the-wall Italian place around the corner that serves fresher, tastier  food, with greater variety, for more reasonable prices.  The background music is firmly in the background and the food is so good that I've never even noticed what their waiters wear.
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