The Talk

What does Olive Garden think we’ve become?

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One down...infinity to go.
One down...infinity to go.

There have been big changes in the way many of the nation’s chain restaurants are doing business. With lagging sales and a changing demographic – apparently going to Applebee’s isn’t the cool thing to do for the millennial set – the traditional casual family restaurant is getting a big makeover.

It seems that restaurant chains such as Olive Garden and T.G.I. Fridays are coming out with daily announcements of major changes they’ve made to their menu, décor or promotions.

One would assume that such multibillion dollar industries would spend a little scratch on market research, learning what the modern casual diner is looking for in a night out on the town.

And after looking at the changes many of these restaurants have made or are planning, one would also hope that they got it horribly, horribly wrong.

Because if the changes the restaurants are making are any indication of the modern American’s dining habits, we’re disgusting, tasteless gluttons with no discernment for quality or originality.

Let’s take Olive Garden, for starters. No one has ever mistaken this chain restaurant for fine dining. But, honestly, when it began 20 years or so ago, it wasn’t half-bad. It wasn’t “authentic” Italian cooking – no matter what the commercials said – but you got decent portions of Italian-esque dishes that you couldn’t get elsewhere. They filled a niche and raked in the cash.

As few as 10 years ago, if you went there on a weekend, you’d wait an hour for a table.

Then the recession came. People were going out less to eat.

Someone in corporate restaurant America decided those folks were trading in their Olive Garden nights for the fine dining they offer at McDonald’s. So they decided fast-foody was the way to go.

To keep folks coming in, they did anything they could to keep down prices. That meant slashing portions and quality to stay below a certain price point.

I was once (embarrassingly enough) a bit of an Olive Garden fan, but the decline in quality and service was apparent.

The night my husband ordered seafood alfredo and it came with one shrimp was the last time we ate there.

I get it. A restaurant has to do what a restaurant has to do to stay alive during bad times. The problem is, when the economy started to turn around and people again started going out to eat, the quality never returned.

The same goes for Fridays. While it still serves a pretty tasty steak, just about everything else on the menu is premade off premises and simply reheated on site, I believe. That means no special orders and pretty soggy appetizers.

Their answer to turning things around – more crappy food.

The chain just announced that it is offering unlimited appetizers for $10 per person. So the few remaining fans it has can guzzle down on all the lukewarm potato skins they want.

I will pass.

Olive Garden’s ideas aren’t any better. The one thing that always gave the restaurant some modicum of kitschy charm was its faux old-world décor.

It’s changed its logo, which is fine, really. It’s also changing its décor, ridding itself of its fake marble columns and what-not in favor of a sleeker more modern design.

I get it. It’s no longer the ’80s. Olive Garden isn’t doing anything that Fridays didn’t do years ago when it modernized from its ‘50s and ‘60s clutter motif to more recent ‘70s and ‘80s memorabilia scattered in a less hoarder-like manner.

Let’s face it, after the movie “Office Space” the chain’s entire “flair” theme was kind of in the toilet.

But Olive Garden isn’t the only one going for more modern and – er — generic.

Ruby Tuesdays, another former hoarders’ delight, also switched from the grandma’s attic look to a simple modern décor a few years back.

It is more tasteful. I’ll give it that, but the restaurants have lost the personality that made us want to go there.

They should, of course, evolve. But give us something more interesting and dramatic. Remind us why we used to like to eat there. Don’t just try to blend into the scenery and hope that we’ll be driving by at the moment we’re hungry enough for massive amounts of mozzarella sticks that we’ll be compelled to turn into your driveway and gorge ourselves.

What do you think of us?

My one glimmer of hope – that $10 endless appetizers doesn’t foretell the end of civilization as we know it – is that the odds of the restaurants being wrong about what we want are fairly high.

These eateries have been on a steady downward decline for many years, and they haven’t come up with the answer yet.

Let’s hope a huge micro-waved meal in a sterile atmosphere and “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” service is just another in a series of long, misguided corporate decisions.

In the meantime, I’m going to try one of the many new restaurants that have opened in the Lehigh Valley lately. Let’s hope they do originality right.

Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe covers technology and trends plus keeps you up to date on what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler and on social media. Reach her at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook and circle her on Google+.

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