The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Another Screw Up for Olive Garden

Leave the Logo, Change the Food

Anybody who reads my little screeds knows how I feel about Olive Garden. It's a place I love to hate primarily because it is such a miserable representation of Italian food and yet hordes of Americans go there thinking it is the Italian version of haute cuisine.

Well, apparently I can't say “hordes” anymore because every market study that's come down the pike lately shows Olive Garden, and its Darden-owned cousin Red Lobster, spiraling downward. I took my wife to Red Lobster the other day to stop her from drooling over the “LobsterFest” TV commercials. My god! The ridiculous prices dried up the drool in a big hurry. We could go down to our local market and buy enough seafood to make more than twice the food at less than half the price. It was positively obscene – especially since it wasn't nearly as much the last time we went LobsterFest-ing. What gives?

Anyway, back to Olive Garden. Their crack(ed) marketing team has taken another big swing at the home run ball and failed to even score a base hit. In fact, they grounded out. After abandoning their decades-old “When You're Here, You're Family” slogan in favor of the more insipid “Go Olive Garden,” they've now decided to ditch their familiar iconic logo. And I do not exaggerate when I say
everybody hates the new one. Oh, I'm sure the people who designed it are in love with it and the people who shelled out big bucks for it – bucks that the company could ill afford to spend foolishly – are at least pretending to love it in order to save face, but everybody else hates it. Let's are a few comments I gleaned from the Net: “It looks like a Design 1 student project;” “Looks like it was drawn with a breadstick;” “I hope that [the new logo] is a joke because it looks like garbage;” “Looks like something off a crock pot from the '70s;” “Looks like it was stolen from the header of a vegetarian's Wordpress blog;” “Looks like a second grader's cursive writing practice.” Can you feel the love?

Come to think of it, its been awhile since I saw the “Go, Olive Garden” nonsense on TV. Seems to me the spot I saw the other night used a variation on the “family” theme. Hmmmmm. Maybe they'll do the same thing with the logo; make it interchangeable with the old one depending on how the market is responding on any particular day. “Ooops! We're losing money today. Quick, bring out the old logo and say something about family.” Idiots.

When will Darden learn that it's not about slogans and logos? It's the food, stupid. First of all, the portions are monstrous by Italian standards. The stuff they slap on a platter to serve to one individual obese American would feed an Italian family of four for three days. I mean, they bring out a salad bowl that's the size of a punch bowl and serve it to one or two people. On the rare occasions when circumstances dictate that I go there, I ask for a child's portion of whatever I'm getting and I still can't finish it. And then there's the quality and authenticity. Please! Save the “fresh” and “made from scratch” crap for the ad campaigns. I know the difference and I also know people who have worked in the kitchen, okay? Olive Garden is to fresh, authentic Italian food what hip-hop is to ballet. Don't even go there with me.

And don't insult me with your “brand renaissance,” and don't invite me to “experience today's Italy.” You could put the execs at Darden in the middle of the cazzo Colosseum and they wouldn't recognize Italy. Their marketing drivel boasts to their clueless investors that they are the “#1 Italian Full-Service Concept in the U.S.” In the first place, they couldn't locate Italy on a map and in the second place, what the hell is an “Italian Full-Service Concept?” If they think they're #1, they're full of #2. They say they are making “important refinements” to their “strategic framework” through a “new approach to advertising and promotion.” How about a new approach to Italian food, morons? The rest of their investor presentation just made me gag. Here it is if you want to gag along. 

Now, I do have to give them props for a couple of recent innovations. They have added some small plates to the menu that are actually not too bad. They've introduced an arancini dish – although they insist on calling it “risotto bites” because it's easier than explaining what an arancino is. And they came up with a baked prosciutto-stuffed, bacon-topped tortellini that's pretty good. The arancini idea is actually authentic and the tortellini is at least Italian-ish. And they are both served in manageable portions at reasonable prices. Steps in the right direction? Maybe.

Another thing they're doing right is their “cafe” concept. Instead of taking the little buzzer thing and waiting for forty minutes, my wife and I went straight to the bar area and found a table there. Seating is on a first serve basis, but somebody was leaving just as we got there, so we were seated immediately. It was a little noisier and a little more crowded, but there were no screaming kiddies either, so that was a definite plus. We finished our meal and left while the people who came in after us were still standing in the lobby holding their little buzzers.

But for every step forward, Olive Garden seems to take three steps back. Besides the despised new logo and banal new slogan, they've hired a clueless new corporate chef. Executive Chef Jim Nuetzi started out slinging pizza in Atlanta and to prove that he has Italian cooking chops, his first move when he signed on at Darden was to create an “Italiano Burger.” With fries. He claims Olive Garden is losing customers who have a “burger craving” to places like Applebee's and Chili's. I don't even know how to wrap my head around that. What's next? “Italian” tacos for the Taco Bell crowd? Why can't they figure out that when you try to be everything to everybody, you wind up being nothing to anybody. At least the old chef, Paolo Lafata, knew pasta from peanut butter.

Darden has already announced that it's cutting its losses and “spinning off” Red Lobster. Wonder how that will fly with the side-by-side combo units they've been putting up lately? But they insist they are hanging on to Olive Garden. Only problem is, they're piling rocks and boulders into a sinking ship. “Brand renaissance” and new logos and “new approaches to marketing and advertising” are not the answers. An Italian restaurant that serves Italian food is.

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