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Monday, May 11, 2015

Olive Garden tries again: Breadsticks with a side of breadsticks

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2015 at 3:40 PM

Earlier this year, we were invited to Olive Garden to taste some retooled menu items. Basically, we said that the new menu was healthy and authentic — if "healthy" and "authentic" can mean absolutely anything you want. (By those standards, neutron bombs and James Frey are "healthy" and "authentic," respectively.) 

Those new dishes, and many other changes at the Olive Garden, are in response to years of declining sales. It seems that the "chainiest of chains" is stagnating, and actually losing ground in this decade.

Why might that be? Is it because the food is a bunch of overprocessed food-service crap that gets poured out of bags, lightly sautéed, and dumped on plates? Is it because it doesn't serve Italian food so much as a caricature of Italian food that appeals to Americans who love to eat sugar, salt, fat, and carbs? Is it because of Olive Garden's total suckitude?

Given the company's latest tactic, one imagines such questions don't torment higher-ups at Olive Garden much. We say that because the OG's latest decision is to serve sandwiches on the bread that comes with your dinner. In other words, order three meatballs and you can enjoy meat and free, bottomless breadsticks. Order a meatballs sandwich and you're paying for two, slightly larger breadsticks.

And you still get as many breadsticks on the side as you like.

In other words, you can now order breadsticks, and still get endless free breadsticks.

Perhaps it's unfair to bread to call these carb-batons anything starting with "bread." They're saltier, oilier, doughier, vaguely pretzel-like. It seems a poor decision for a chain to double down on carbohydrates just as science and culture are declaring them a danger to public health.

Recent studies show that Americans, grudgingly, and partly due to economic and not health reasons, are eating incrementally better. Among better-educated people, a growing consensus has emerged that processed foods are detrimental to health. 

So, on the one hand, you have research showing that Americans increasingly don't want what Olive Garden has, and Olive Garden trying to draw them back by offering more of what they already do.

You don't need to be Michael Pollan to figure out how well that will work.

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