Olive Garden stocks Sam’s Club shelves with dressing, cheese

May 11, 2012

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel, April 25, 2012

 Olive Garden’s Italian salad dressing and shredded cheese are now for sale in Sam’s Club stores across the country.

The Italian chain, owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, said Wednesday the products will be sold at Sam’s Club stores exclusively for a year. Darden, which also owns Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, will study sales results before determining whether to expand its new grocery business.

 It’s a chance “to extend the brand beyond the four walls of the restaurant,” Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said.

But don’t expect to buy breadsticks or chicken parmesan anytime soon. Darden says it would have difficulty re-creating the quality of its restaurant meals in frozen entrees, so it would stick with basic items such as the dressing and cheeses made by outside companies but marketed under the Olive Garden brand under a licensing deal.

T. Marzetti, which sells its own products in grocery stores, also makes the Olive Garden dressing. Lotito Foods produces the cheese blend.

Locally, a two-pack of 20-ounce Italian dressing bottles sells for $6.98. The 14-ounce, refrigerated blend of asiago, parmesan, romano and provolone cheeses carries a price tag of $7.98.

Olive Garden, which has already sold dressing in its restaurants for a decade, also will sell mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano cheese in select Sam’s Club stores. Those will include some in Central Florida.

Seeing Olive Garden venture into the grocery aisles isn’t a surprise, said Steve West, a restaurant-industry analyst for ITG Investment Research. “We’ve seen this kind of trend for years.”

P.F. Chang’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and California Pizza Kitchen all sell frozen meals. Tony Roma’s, which has its restaurant operations based in Orlando, also sells frozen entrees and recently began hawking ribs on a cable home-shopping network.

Analysts said Olive Garden’s food manufacturers would likely pay the restaurant chain between 5 and 10 percent of sales in royalties. It would be small change for Darden, a company that rings up $7.5 billion in sales each year.

“It builds brand awareness, which I’m not sure they really need to do, but it does give them another revenue stream which doesn’t take a lot of cost,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic. “I think even if it is successful, its not going to be that meaningful to a brand that’s so large.”

Tristano recently bought a bottle of Olive Garden dressing from Sam’s.

“I’m not sure it’s as good as it is at the restaurant,” he said. “That could be quality or psychology. I’m not sure. It’s close enough that I feel like it’s a nice opportunity.”