Olive Garden Gets More A uthentic
The American-Italian chain is suddenly serious about bringing Old World touches to its restaurants.
BY RONA GINDIN
Although Olive Garden is a chain of Italian restaurants, eating at one of its dinnerhouses has traditionally seemed very little like a meal at a restaurant in Italy. Customers would order some Italian-American hybrid dish, sip beer, cola or perhaps a glass of an undistinguished house wine and rush out the door. In Italy, meals are far more relaxed and a bottle of good wine is a vital component of the every day dining experience.
But there are some very big changes being made to the way the 469-unit Orlando, Fla.-based chain does business, the most important perhaps being that the chain has set up shop in Italy to learn more about the country’s food and wine. They’ve also changed the U.S. menus to demonstrate what has been learned in the hills of sunny Italy.
The result: a more sophisticated menu, a better selection of wine, better merchandising of wines and, ultimately, greater customer satisfaction. Those changes are among the reasons why the chain picked up the 2001 Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence for best chain restaurant wine program last month in Las Vegas.
More importantly for the executives who pushed for the changes, Olive Garden has also seen increased wine sales and guest satisfaction. “Wine sales have increased in excess of 20 percent this year,” director of beverage marketing and development Bill Edwards reports. “That will directly result in increased guest satisfaction, which is our #1 priority. And if they’re satisfied, guests will come back more often.”
“Our strategy is to deliver a genuine Italian dining experience for our guests,” claims Drew Madsen, executive vice president of marketing. Directed by President Brad Blum, who has lived in Europe and has a personal passion for Italy, the Olive Garden menu has evolved. “Italian food at the heart is not complicated or pretentious,” Madsen explains. “It is food that’s made with fresh, high-quality ingredients and prepared with skill, simply and with a lot of love and passion.”
As anyone who’s been there knows, drinking wine with those foods is part of the Italian dining experience. “When there’s a bottle of wine on the table, the meal changes dramatically,” adds Edwards, “People relax, they share, they fill each other’s glasses and the meal evolves into a spiritual-type situation.”
FROM PEORIA TO PISA
Getting hourly restaurant workers in, for instance, central Indiana to understand how to bring passion for food and wine to their kitchens and tables is “no small task,” Madsen admits. But with a sizeable infusion of capital spent on sending employees at all levels to Italy, Olive Garden is creating that passion in units all over the country.
The headquarters for this change in approach is the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, a joint venture between Olive Garden and one of its partners, Tuscan winery Rocca delle Macie. The Institute, located in a restored hayloft in an 11th Century village in the Chianti Classico region, is a school for Olive Garden employees, the main part being a restaurant called the Olive Garden Riserva di Fizzano, run primarily by Rocca delle Macie.
Olive Garden Riserva di Fizzano restaurant, located in a restored eleventh century village overlooking Tuscany, near Florence, Italy.
Olive Garden has adopted some of Riserva di Fizzano’s recipes for its American audience. As a result, items such as pork Filettino, a tenderloin marinated in olive oil and rosemary and grilled, shares the menu with more traditional American-Italian items such as spaghetti and meatballs. Another specialty is Tortelloni di Fizzano, pasta filled with ricotta cheese and spinach and topped with a creamy beef and pork Bolognese sauce.
When servers, cooks and managers are flown to Italy for a week, they spend part of their time touring the vineyards and learning about wine. Rocca delle Macie has also helped develop a “Tuscan farmhouse” design for new Olive Garden restaurants and a “Revitalia” redesign for existing ones.
“We have flown 250 people to Italy already in three years,” says Edwards. “It’s a huge investment, but you can’t measure the payback. We view training as an investment. I once heard a speaker says, ‘People always ask about what if you train someone and they leave. What’s the alternative: You don’t and they stay?'” (Only a handful of the 250 who’ve been to Italy have moved on from Olive Garden so far, indicating that the trip may be a wonderful retention tool.)
VINO A TAVOLA
In the restaurants, the efforts to inculcate Italian influences in the staff have led to an increased emphasis on selling wine. The wine list has doubled in size to 38 wines, ranging from beginner-friendly Lambrusco at $3.50 a glass, ($14 bottle), to Bertani Amarone, a full-bodied Italian red that goes for $110 a bottle (it is not poured by the glass). “We sell it,” Madsen reports, “not nearly as much as the others, but every restaurant has sold several bottles.” Between the two extremes is a considered assortment of wines.
The current list covers a broader wine spectrum. “We had major gaps before,” says Madsen, “either in terms of recognizable brand names or high-growth varietals or price points. We didn’t have a wine for everybody. Now we have entry level wines by the glass below $4 in broadly appealing varietiels like Chardonnay and Merlot, and we have more interesting wines.”
Choices are also based on consumer trends, Edwards notes. “We look closely at industry data to see what consumers are buying retail and drinking at home so we can stay very close to consumer trends, though we also try to mix in other wines so we can offer a couple of surprises,” he says.
70 PERCENT SOLUTION
Olive Garden consumers do drink wine, Madsen notes. “Our surveys show that more than 70 percent drink wine, though not consistently at Olive Garden, so there is not a question of their being wine drinkers. There are also three types of wine drinkers, from those who spend little and drink the most basic wines to others who have the willingness to explore and try different varietals. We want to have wines for all those types of customers.”
The wine lists are designed with ease-of-use in mind, and most wines are available by the glass. The list is divided into simple categories like “red” and “white,” then subdivided by type “Tuscan Reds, Medium to Full-Bodied” and “Cabernet, Medium to Full-Bodied.” The wines are then listed from lighter to more full-bodied, which makes it easier for staffers to make recommendations with just a little input from customers.
Customers are introduced to wines before they even walk to their tables. At least two nights a week in every restaurant, “wine hosts” often employees who’ve been on that week-long Italian tour offer samples to waiting customers in the restaurant lobbies. There’s no pushing involved; customers must approach the tables of their own free will. Once there, they’re invited to sample three or four wines chosen around a theme, such as Tuscan-style reds from the Napa Valley and pinot grigios. They’re offered a small bite, such as a chunk of imported cheese or an olive, with their tastes.
As the waiting customers sample the wines, and the wine host talks “personally and passionately” about them, says Edwards, customers often begin to consider ordering a glass with their meals, not a common American impulse. “Seventy percent of the people who come to our restaurants don’t have a preconceived notion of what they’re going to order when they get here, from a beverage standpoint,” he reports. “We suggest that if they’re coming to Olive Garden and want to enjoy a genuine Italian experience, they should drink wine because that’s what people do in Italy.”
Like all Olive Garden’s wine-related efforts, the menu and tastings were designed to take intimidation out of wine. “We try to break down the fear factor,” Edwards emphasizes. That goes for not only customers, but staffers, too. “In our staff training, for example, we help people understand that this is fermented grape juice with a piece of tree bark stuck in the top, and they don’t have to be afraid of it. We tell them that if you get away from the pomp and circumstance, you can understand that this is a very natural beverage that, in Italy, is on the table as commonly has bread, salt and pepper. It makes food taste better and creates a better dining experience.”
“We also explain that, if they know even the basics, they’re ahead of 95 percent of their guests, who are also intimidated by wine.”
TASTE AND SEE
Before each shift, the service staff meets for “Dine with Wine Alley Rallies.” Servers taste wines and are taught about them as they taste the dishes being featured that night. The managers know what to say because corporate trainers put together easy-to-use instructions for them. “It’s a very approachable format,” Edwards notes.
Knowing even the basics of wine works in servers’ favor, of course. Wine sales can boost check averages, and increase satisfaction, leading to return visits. “Think of a young server in a casual dining atmosphere who is willing and able to make a wine selection to complement what you ordered,” says Edwards. “Just the fact that she can make a suggestion puts her in a different league, and boosts her perceived professionalism as a server.”
Once every few weeks Olive Garden offers a new pairing menu, as well, for which wines are especially chosen for each course. Servers learn about wines when educated about these menus, as well.
Left: Tortelloni di Fizz with wine. Right: Olive Garden has expanded their wine list from 19 to 33 selections.
Although pomp and circumstances have been shunted aside, wine is still given special treatment at Olive Garden. It is poured at the table even for by-the-glass orders, and served in elegant Luigi Bormioli glasses.
No matter how much training goes on in the unit, employees who return from the weeklong trip to Italy make the most significant educational efforts. After visiting wineries and fresh food markets, preparing dishes and dining with Italians, they return with a new outlook.
“They internalize what they’ve seen and it becomes part of their personal experience,” says Edwards. “They then share what they’ve learned with the people they work with as peers and they understand that what we’re getting at is not a marketing program, it’s really a lifestyle, a better way to sit down and enjoy a meal with family and friends.”
Adds Madsen, “The people who go to Italy are wowed, and many say it’s the most amazing, impactful experience of their professional lives. Think of a 21-year-old server who has never been outside of Cleveland; this trip is a life-changing event. It makes a huge emotional impact on them.
“They start to have better appreciation for the Italian culture and the Italian meal and the role of wines. When they come back, they may not articulate how they feel, but they have a much better understand of why we’re trying to do what we are: why we have the tools, program and training that we do. They’re part of it now because they understand it intellectually.
“So if a recipe for Bolognese sauce says to start with a very hot sauté pan, put in x amount of olive oil and then x amount of garlic, then add the meat, then reduce it for 90 minutes, they won’t rush it. It isn’t about warming ingredients anymore; they understand that it’s about developing flavors and that if you slam the dish out in 20 minutes the flavor profile will be all wrong.”