Olive Garden has secret breadstick laws, sauce logic, and salt bans revealed only in turnaround reports—and to diners who eat there 87 times in 21 days.
By Billy Domineau
Illustrations by Celeste Byers
The great thing about being named William is that you have five widely accepted options for what title to actually go by: William, Will, Willy, Bill, Billy. The bad thing about being named William is that if you lack confidence and self-assurance, making that decision can turn into a crowdsourced mess. When I got to high school, I decided it was time to give Will a try. However, having never gone by Will before, I couldn’t be sure it would work out, and so I told all new acquaintances and teachers to call me Will or Bill, whichever they preferred. When further pressed, I would insist that they could call me whatever they wanted. One group of kids took this statement very literally and started calling me Bernard. For several months during my freshman year, I willingly answered to Bernard. It took me a little longer than most to realize that you don’t make friends by deferring to others on questions of identity—a lesson Olive Garden might finally be on the verge of learning.
On October 10th, three weeks into my own personal production of Leaving Pas(ta) Vegas, activist hedge fund Starboard Value successfully replaced the entire corporate board of Darden Restaurants, owners of Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and (formerly) Red Lobster. Just one month earlier, Starboard released a scathing 300-page PowerPoint presentation detailing the perceived systematic failings of Darden’s leadership. The report attacked Darden for throwing away money on ineffective ad campaigns, wasting food, and trying to rebrand shoddy dishes in favor of scrapping or reformulating them. Many of the complaints had to do with behind-the-scenes policies, but some dealt with table-level practices, three of which I paid particularly close attention to during my meals.
An Abundance of Breadsticks
Apparently, there is an official Olive Garden policy that dictates the number of breadsticks provided at the start of each meal. The formula is one breadstick per guest, plus one extra for the entire group. For example, I should’ve therefore received two breadsticks at any of my solo dining experiences. Starboard claims that $5 million is wasted annually on breadsticks that go uneaten when a server doesn’t follow the formula and unnecessarily serves too many.
Up until the time Starboard switched out Darden’s board, I would receive “too many” breadsticks at most of my meals. Four was the regular improper number. I never ate four. However, when you have a pile of bread just sitting before you, it can, after a time, call out to you as with a heartbeat only you can perceive. Of course you should wait for the pasta. But a carb is a carb; it’s all tan anyway. Just eat it. Excessive bread supposedly also drives down sales of appetizers. I never ordered any items that were not included in my Pasta Pass, but I certainly always had enough airy dough in my stomach to preclude me from even considering a spinach artichoke dip.
What’s more, internal data has shown that after eight minutes on the table, Olive Garden breadsticks start to substantially decline in quality. That eight-minute mark is uncanny. Early on, the breadsticks are soft, inviting, with salt and oil sparkling atop them. Wait ’til proverbial midnight, though, and your teeth will fight against the skin of a pumpkin that remembers the glory it so recently knew before it was molded back into its base, primordial form.
Pasta, Pasta, Everywhere,
but Not a Drop to Eat
When you make pasta, you put salt in the water. This is the most basic culinary “trick” I can possibly imagine, trick being any cooking step not visually apparent in the final product that an eight-year-old might think they were special for knowing. Olive Garden does not know this trick, or more accurately they willfully ignore it.
Starboard claims that Olive Garden purposefully neglects salt to avoid invalidating the extended warranty agreement it has with the manufacturer of its cooking pots. I imagine fireworks companies would have much lower insurance rates if they promised not to work with explosives, but is that the point of getting into any business — to protect investments you don’t properly make use of? It is impressive how little flavor pasta has without salt — it’s really just cooking method and seasoning that separate it from Wonder Bread. When you boil your pasta in plain tap water, it tastes like tap water. At Olive Garden, the angel hair tastes chlorinated; the spaghetti tastes wet.
Heaping Helpings of Sauce
I don’t know much about the proper plating of food. The specialty dish that I make is egg and anchovy ramen. Take one pack of Oriental-flavored ramen noodles, boil them for three minutes with three or four eggs, drain, sprinkle with ramen dust, and unload a tin/jar of anchovies and their oil on top. Take five minutes to go feel your feelings/throw up and then come back to continue the article. Starboard laments that Olive Garden cooks do not integrate sauces into their pasta dishes, but rather just ladle rich helpings atop the pasta heap as if it were a liquid toupee. This was invariably true of each sauce I experienced, a congealed raft of concentrated flavor floating atop the freshwater sea. For your tongue to know any joy, your fork must be the kraken that splinters this ship.
The issue of the sauce strikes me as particularly odd. A logical explanation for why Olive Garden sauces are not mixed into the pasta is that those in charge deemed the extra step an inefficient use of time and therefore money. But what if the choice was less about saving a buck than passing it? When sauces and meat toppings are left unintegrated, especially in make-your-own-style dishes like the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, they serve as a visual reminder to the guest of their choice to put these particular ingredients together. Whether the guest enjoys, disdains, or feels completely neutral about the final product, any credit is directed toward them and away from the restaurant. Olive Garden doesn’t seem to have the spine to ask the guest to call it Will or Bill.
The Starboard report came out just a day or two removed from the unveiling of the Pasta Pass and as such makes no mention of it. However, Starboard did single out another recent promotion that has since been scrapped: Buy One, Take One. Buy one Olive Garden entrée from a select list for $12.99, get a second serving of that same entrée to go at no additional charge. The concept was nothing innovative; really all it did was codify what was standard practice for me and millions of fellow Gardeners. For those unfamiliar, you don’t actually eat your entrée at Olive Garden. You just order it as a way of opening the floodgates of endless soup or salad and unlimited breadsticks that the entrée makes possible. When your appetizer and the ’sticks get to the table, you have anywhere between a 6- and 15-minute window, depending on restaurant capacity and complexity of the main dish, to dehumanize yourself with as many money-saving mouthfuls as possible. It doesn’t matter that soup wasn’t what you primarily wanted. It’s irrelevant that you can’t eat bread due to celiac. You have the opportunity to leave a restaurant with stomach full and entrée intact, the type of victory normally reserved for beauty queens and inner-city baseball teams with heart. Had I been wiser, I’d have saved all of the many takeout boxes I accumulated in my teen years, each the equivalent of a head on a spike. Alas, some wisdom only comes with age and under-employment. When I saw the BOTO offer on a menu for the first time, though, it filled me with shame rather than excitement. Just because your parents tell you it’s perfectly natural doesn’t change the fact that they caught you masturbating. This is not the time for a conversation, Olive Garden. Just shut the door and let us eat lettuce.
Starboard wasn’t a fan of BOTO because the Henny Youngmanesque approach — “Take our pasta, please!” — seemed to suggest that Olive Garden didn’t value its own product enough to make customers actually pay for it, suggesting a further crisis of self-confidence. By that same logic, Starboard must have really shaken its head at the Pasta Pass.
Switch your thoughts for a moment from olives to onions. In 2012, The Onion released a video about a supposed Applebee’s ad campaign that encouraged hipsters to eat at the restaurant chain ironically. It’s upsettingly spot-on.
I don’t think it’s crazy to say that whatever marketers/executives/nihilists approved of the Pasta Pass hoped that pass holders would write about their experiences. There are several other bloggers and people gradually turning obese who are documenting their experience online. The idea of eating pound after pound of any one food is ultimately disgusting and a little morbid. The reviews you’re going to get will be largely about grotesque excess. If that’s the kind of publicity you’re knowingly walking into, aren’t you encouraging customers to dine ironically, to reenact their own tiny scene of the larger passion play I and others are currently living? I worry that Olive Garden is so focused on getting anyone to eat at its restaurants for the sake of the bottom line that it doesn’t care what those guests have to say about the food, whether they call it “good,” “bad,” or even “Bernard.”
In spite of these fears, the future may be bright for Olive Garden. Starboard is well positioned to get the restaurant chain back on track not only because of its business acumen, but also its naïveté. Their report mentions several beloved Olive Garden dishes that have, for no apparent reason, been long-forgotten from the menu. It singles out Lobster Spaghetti as being one particularly delicious, authentic loss. Say “Lobster Spaghetti” to yourself out loud. Now go with your gut reaction—does that sound more like an authentic Tuscan recipe or a late-’80s jam band known for putting up huge shows at the University of Vermont every year on 4/20? It’s okay that you probably said the latter, because more than anything it sounds like a dish that belongs at Olive Garden — a well-intentioned, multicultural mess that lops well onto a plate and tastes like it’s worth exactly $16.99.
The key to saving Olive Garden is not making it a good Italian restaurant—it’s just making it a good Olive Garden, one that wholeheartedly embraces an identity it defines, rather than whatever guests, critics, and high-school “friends” choose to label it. Starboard seems to understand this, and that’s reason enough to clink your stale breadsticks in celebration.
This is the second in a series of pasta-filled diaries. The feast continues next week.