Olive Garden Shrinks Meals for Millennials

CHICAGO – Olive Garden, purveyor of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, has discovered portion control.

In an effort to attract millennials and boost flagging sales, Darden Restaurants Inc.’s Italian restaurant chain is introducing small plates, including Parmesan asparagus and grilled-chicken tapas. This amounts to a 180-degree turn for a chain that has long sold big portions to eaters who like a deal.

The challenge for Olive Garden will be encouraging diners in their 20s and 30s, many of whom shun chain restaurants, to drop by for nibbles without alienating loyal customers who convene for family feasts.

For millennials, “social occasions generally don’t tend to be large meals in a traditional sense,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a research firm based in Chicago. “They’re looking for items they can share, sample, that allow them to graze.”

Small plates may not be “a clean fit” for Olive Garden, given its focus on families and boomers, he said.

Olive Garden created the tapas recipes about six months ago and began testing the food earlier this year in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Grand Rapids, Mich.

After offering the dishes for a limited time last month, the chain plans to add them to the permanent menu in December. It’s also trying out more small plate varieties such as garlic hummus, chicken meatballs and tortelloni stuffed with cheese, to gauge customer response before introducing them nationwide.

Olive Garden has been struggling in the aftermath of the downturn as Americans eat out less. Efforts to lure cash-strapped diners with such deals as three-course dinners and $6.95 lunches haven’t helped much.

As a category, sit-down restaurants are lagging behind fast food and fast casual joints. Sales at full-service restaurants will rise 2.9 percent this year to $208.1 billion, compared with a 4.9 percent gain for fast-food eateries, according to National Restaurant Association estimates.

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