The Untold Truth Of Olive Garden

Olive Garden may not be the most authentic Italian restaurant out there, but we love it nonetheless. From those enticing unlimited soup and salad deals right down to their fettuccine Alfredo, there is just something about the comforting food of Olive Garden that has us going back for more. Yet despite the fact that you may have memorized their menu by heart, how much do you really know about this popular Italian-themed chain restaurant? Do you know about its ties to a cereal manufacturing giant? Or what about the truth behind its rustic culinary institute? Did you even know they had a culinary institute? On the surface, Olive Garden may appear to be pretty straight forward, but dig a little deeper and you'll find an interesting past. So grab yourself a breadstick, put your order in with the waiter, and munch away while you discover these interesting facts you never knew about Olive Garden.

It's the product of a cereal company

When we think of cereal giant General Mills, usually products such as Lucky Charms and Cheerios are what come to mind. What doesn't come to mind is heaping bowls of pasta. It should though because General Mills is responsible for the creation of Olive Garden. Back in 1970, General Mills entered into the restaurant industry when Red Lobster founder Bill Darden sold off his enterprise to their company. As Red Lobster became a success, General Mills decided to expand upon their restaurant endeavors and open up Olive Garden.

Although Olive Garden became a thriving business, General Mills eventually decided to get out of the restaurant industry. In 1995, Olive Garden, and the other restaurants owned by General Mills, were spun off into a new independent company owned by stockholders called Darden Restaurants Inc. Along with Olive Garden, the company owns other popular restaurant chains such as LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, and Bahama Breeze.

They started out with big goals

Some restaurants start out as small, independently run businesses that naturally turn into chain restaurants over time. That wasn't the case for Olive Garden. When General Mills started the restaurant it was with the intention of turning it into a chain restaurant. In 1982 when Olive Garden first opened its doors at their Orlando, Florida location it wouldn't be long before other locations popped up. According to Fox News, by 1989 Olive Garden had already opened up 145 locations. With over 100 location openings in less than ten years, Olive Garden's business was thriving, turning it into a popular dining staple among Americans.

Whether it's the comforting all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks or the familiarity of the dining experience, business is apparently still thriving for Olive Garden. They currently have over 800 locations throughout North America and as of 2016, held the title of being the largest Italian-themed full-service chain restaurant in America.

They skip one very important step when cooking pasta

The first rule most people are taught when cooking pasta is that you have to salt the water. By adding a pinch of salt, the pasta is able to soak it up during the cooking process which enhances the overall flavor. This is a fundamental step that is looked down upon when skipped, and Olive Garden found that out the hard way. According to Business Insider, Olive Garden faced some serious backlash when shareholder Starboard Value called them out on skipping the crucial ingredient, which was one of many complaints during a 300-slide presentation.

So what was Olive Garden's reasoning for not salting? The pots. Apparently, the company claimed that adding salt would ruin the warranty on their pots. Putting that to the test, HuffPost conducted their own experiment to see if this was true. What they found was that their theory was nonsense. According to their experiment, if you add salt to the water when it's boiling it can't react to the oxygen in the water, thus saving the pot. Sounds like Olive Garden could use a little cooking advice here or there.

You won't believe how many breadsticks they serve annually

With unlimited breadsticks as an option, do you ever wonder just how many breadsticks Olive Garden serves in a year? In 2014, they served about 675 million. That may sound like an astounding amount of bread, but that equals out to about three breadsticks per customer, per visit, according to Vox. When broken down like that, serving 675 million yearly doesn't sound so crazy.

While the customers may absolutely love them, not everyone in the company is happy about the number of breadsticks being served. The same investor that was unhappy about the lack of salting pasta water, Starboard Value, felt that serving a whopping 675 million free breadsticks is too much. They were also not pleased with the quality of the breadsticks themselves, stating that after seven minutes, the breadsticks went stale which resulted in massive quantities of food waste. While they recommended serving one breadstick per customer, the unlimited breadsticks are still being offered ... for now.

Not all those authentic sounding Italian menu items are legit

Were you a fan of Olive Garden's Pastachetti? What about their Soffatelli? While these may sound like delicious authentic Italian dishes, Olive Garden made them up. While the chefs responsible for these creations may have taken inspiration from Italy, you won't find these dishes anywhere but Olive Garden.

So why did Olive Garden feel the need to come up with its own fancy lingo? Most likely to draw in customers. Unfortunately for Olive Garden, it did the opposite. Customers weren't fans of the unfamiliar dishes featuring gourmet-sounding ingredients. In fact, the lack of consumer interest in the menu items with fake names was partly to blame for half of the chain's disappointing sales (via Orlando Sentinel). Due to the failure of these menu items, Olive garden decided to get back to the basics with traditional Italian dishes and promote specials with familiar names their customers would recognize. Sticking with the tried and true, it appears what Olive Garden customers really want are the classics. I guess it really is best not to mess with a good thing.

Their culinary institute is not what you think

The Olive Garden Culinary Institute of Tuscany does in fact exist in Italy, but it's not what its name makes it out to be. What was believed to be a type of cooking academy where Olive Garden chefs are trained, is more along the lines of a retreat for managers. 

According to Time, an anonymous Reddit poster who claimed she attended the institute as an employee explained that it is nothing more than a hotel that Olive Garden reserves for managers and chefs during the off-season. While Olive Garden employees do have access to the hotel's kitchen if they choose to utilize it, there is no school there. Most employees spend the entire time sightseeing rather than training. To further illustrate her point, she wrote, "The only time we saw the 'chef' was when she made a bolognese sauce while taking pictures with each of us to send to our local newspapers."

Even the hotel itself isn't owned by Olive Garden — it's owned by a local wine label. Let's face it, while the Culinary Institute of Tuscany may not be a real cooking school owned by Olive Garden, getting a free trip to Italy on the company dime is a big perk.

They inspired their own black market craze on eBay

Were you one of the lucky ones to get the Olive Garden unlimited pass for $100? If not, you may have resorted to eBay. According to Mental Floss, when Olive garden released their Never Ending Pasta Pass, people lost it. The pass, which allows for unlimited pasta, soup, and salad for a limited time is a popular commodity that sells out instantly. This in turn presents a problem for those that are left without endless pasta. That's where eBay comes in. Due to sold-out Never Ending Passes, people were turning to eBay to try and get their hands on one. Unfortunately, those passes not only cost up to $300, but most of them were also fake.

While a fake pasta pass may have left some disappointed, those that got the real thing completely took advantage of it. One guy claimed he even ate 115 meals. At the time, the promotion was for a seven-week period. Considering he ate 115 meals worth, that's only 32 meals shy of having nothing but Olive Garden for breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday for seven weeks straight. That's not only a lot of pasta, that's a lot of Olive Garden.

Millennials can't seem to get enough

Millennials may take the blame for killing the chain restaurant industry, but one chain restaurant they aren't killing is Olive Garden. Along with avocado toast and rosé wine, millennials apparently really love Olive Garden. According to Food & Wine, Olive Garden's sales have soared while other restaurant chains are taking a big hit, and part of that is due to their faithful millennial clientele — about 30 percent of their patrons are millennials. So while competing chain restaurants like Applebee's, Wild Buffalo Wings, and TGI Fridays are seeing sales plummet, says Business Insider, Olive Garden's business continues to thrive.

So what is it about Olive Garden that attracts millennials unlike other generations? Perhaps it's all the changes investor Starboard Value demanded the restaurant chain make. Or maybe it's the beloved chicken Alfredo... or the unlimited salad and breadsticks. Whatever it is, millennials love it and that is good news for Olive Garden.

They once had a restaurant hybrid with another popular chain

If two popular restaurant chains were to merge into one, would they become the ultimate dining experience? Darden Restaurants Inc. decided to find out when they took their two most popular restaurants, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and combined them under the same roof. While this may sound like a phenomenal menu mashup of never-ending pasta and lobster tails, the only thing this restaurant hybrid shared was a roof and a kitchen. The restaurant dining areas, entrances, and menus were still kept separate.

You may be wondering why they wouldn't combine menu items and that has to do with business logistics. The idea behind the joint venture was the company could cut some expenses while still maximizing its profits. Sadly, the Olive Garden-Red Lobster restaurant hybrids didn't last. In 2014 Darden sold off Red Lobster, forcing either the closure or remodeling of all the hybrids into a single Olive Garden restaurant. Looks like we'll just have to stick to the buffet to get our endless soup, salad, and shrimp fix in.

You have to be rich to eat at this location on New Year's

New York's Times Square is booming on New Year's Eve, and apparently so is Olive Garden. Getting in on the action, Olive Garden's Times Square location throws a big bash that costs a whopping $400 a person. For a pretty penny like that, the all-you-can-eat salad better come with some free booze. Oh wait, it does. With the $400, guests will be able to get free drinks all night long from any bar located in the restaurant. They will also get to enjoy the buffet, a live DJ, and several dance floors so they can bust a move.

This may sound like a ridiculous amount of money to spend at a chain restaurant, but Olive Garden isn't the only one offering a pricey VIP New Year's Eve party. Apparently, chain restaurants Ruby Tuesday's and Bubba Gump Shrimp have also gotten in on the action and charge a ridiculous amount for a New Year's Eve food bash.

You can make their most popular menu item at home

While it's hard to pass up on the unlimited soup, salad, and breadstick deal, everyone's favorite item on the menu is the chicken Alfredo pasta. A signature Olive Garden dish, their creamy Alfredo pasta sauce has remained unchanged since the restaurant was founded 1982. Filled with Parmesan, butter, garlic, cheese, and cream, it's simply hard not to love this stuff.

If you yourself are a fan of this Olive Garden classic, then you'll be happy to know that you too can make this Alfredo sauce right at home. To begin, melt butter in a saucepan with minced garlic. Whisk in some flour, then slowly pour in the milk and heavy cream. Now, add in a generous amount of Parmesan and Romano cheese. Bring the sauce to a boil then turn off the heat and whisk a few more times until the sauce thickens. Once the sauce is done, pour it over cooked linguine or your favorite pasta of choice and top it with chicken. Along with the pasta, make this Olive Garden-style salad dressing and you'll never need to eat out again.

Post Malone owns the rights to one of their slogans

Strange as this sounds, musician Post Malone really does own the rights to Olive Garden's former slogan, "When You're Here, You're Family". But how? And why? Turn out it's all Jimmy Fallon's doing. 

Back in 2012, on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon", Fallon occasionally used the phrase "When You're Here, You're Family," a joke that seemingly resonated with his audience. So when he learned that the chain was getting rid of the slogan, per Yahoo! News, he reached out to Olive Garden. The restaurant chain agreed to sign the slogan over to Fallon's show. Darden company executive Dave George went on to appear as a guest on the show in 2013, bringing Fallon the licensing agreement and signing it right there on camera. Olive Garden happily shared footage of the show and kindly welcomed Fallon to the Olive Garden family. 

But what does that have to do with Post Malone? Fast forward to 2018 on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." In one segment, Post Malone took Fallon to his favorite restaurant, which is — yes, you guessed it — Olive Garden. After scooping butter onto each bite of his breadsticks and ordering a literal laundry basket of croutons, Post Malone received a surprise gift from Fallon, who had decided to transfer the rights to the slogan over to Malone. With the agreement signed posthaste on the show, Post Malone now legally holds the rights to the catchy former slogan.

You can buy their Signature Italian Dressing by the bottle

No need to scour Pinterest for the perfect copycat recipe for Olive Garden's yummy Italian dressing. You can simply buy the dressing by the bottle at your local grocery store or supermarket. Now, practically everyone who dines at Olive Garden loves the never-ending soup, salad, and breadsticks at the restaurant. But not everyone knows that you can get the same taste at home and even stock your pantry full of some of the same stuff if you want to. Just keep a bottle on hand and toss your salad with the dressing to get that Olive Garden taste with your home-cooked dinner. You can also potentially use it in your cooking as a marinade! The unlimited salad and, of course, breadsticks are largely what keep people coming back to Olive Garden again and again, so why not replicate it to a certain extent at home? 

Copycat dressing recipes have been popular for a while now, but you can still take a bit of a shortcut with the official bottled stuff. And we are not surprised that it's pretty popular, considering that Olive Garden's salad has that perfectly fresh and tangy Italian dressing that appeals to almost everyone's palate. So grab a bottle and see if you can recreate the restaurant's signature vibe at home with your family.

Olive Garden has a large presence in Latin America

Olive Garden isn't just a North American restaurant staple. Apparently, the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks deal is pretty popular in Latin America as well, where Olive Garden appears to be thriving.

In 2013, according to the Orlando Business Journal, Darden Restaurants, Inc. started to focus its efforts on opening more restaurants in Central and Latin American countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and more. Currently, according to Olive Garden's website, there are more than a dozen locations in Mexico alone, with Puerto Rico and Brazil following behind closely with a large number of locations as well. 

So, is it the family atmosphere or the semi-authentic Italian food that makes Olive Garden so appealing to those communities? We can't be sure, but Darden clearly isn't afraid to invest in more and more locations there. According to Fox Business, those new ventures include not only Olive Garden locations, but other Darden Restaurants stalwarts like Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse. We get the interest in the expansion, though. After all, who doesn't love those breadsticks?

Taylor Swift mentioned Olive Garden in a song

Yes, you read that right. In 2020, Olive Garden was featured in a Taylor Swift song on her new album, "Evermore." The massive pop sensation certainly helps Olive Garden out with its advertising, especially towards younger generations, when she mentions Olive Garden in the song "No Body, No Crime." 

As the name implies, the song is a murder mystery where the victim fails to show up at Olive Garden with Swift.  "Este wasn't there, Tuesday night at Olive Garden, at her job, or anywhere" Taylor sings Este is actually the name of one of the members of the band HAIM, who accompanies Swift on the song. Moreover, she just happens to love Olive Garden. So in true Taylor Swift fashion, Este's name and her favorite restaurant were used as a lyric in the song, according to InStyle. And if that wasn't enough social buzz for Olive Garden, the HAIM posted a video on Instagram showing them grubbing Olive Garden while listening to the song.

Olive Garden's CEO, Gene Lee, officially thanked Swift for the name drop on a board call, according to Business Insider. Hopefully, Swift helped Olive Garden squash those false rumors of the whole chain closing down while she was at it. Darden surely knows how important it is to stay relevant with the younger generations in order to keep growing their business, so we're sure the Swiftie name drop came as a welcome surprise.

They recovered quite nicely from the pandemic

Many restaurants are still struggling after the infamous Covid-19 shut down and struggling to pick themselves back up even as some cities open back up and rules relax. But Olive Garden has actually done surprisingly well following the pandemic. In June of 2021, after indoor dining returned to normal (as normal as it could get, anyway), the restaurant chain reported a record-breaking profit, according to CNBC. The Darden poster child beat predictions and almost matched 2019's pre-pandemic profit in the meantime. 

So, why is Olive Garden doing so well as restaurants and diners return and other places are struggling? Per FSR, CEO Gene Lee says it is because they refuse to use third-party delivery services like so many other restaurants. He's not necessarily wrong because, while overall sales may be lower compared to pre-pandemic numbers, the company's actual profits are still gaining serious momentum in 2021. While other chains were using delivery services like UberEats and DoorDash to increase sales, Olive Garden broke its all-time single-day sales record on Mother's Day 2021 (via CNBC). We guess millennials and boomers alike still love the idea of taking their parents to Olive Garden where everyone feels like they are part of one big, happy Italian family.