If you’ve ever suffered the misfortune of dining at the Olive Garden, you’re probably had their breadsticks. If so, you know that they’re not actually breadsticks at all, but rather batons of fluffy white bread baked into a tubular shape, then slathered with garlic butter.
Olive Garden’s “breadsticks” are popular for two reasons: they’re unlimited and free. From a nutritional standpoint, they could be worse. Each one contains 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 4 grams of protein; the only drawback is 460 mg of sodium, but stratospheric sodium levels are part of the low-cost restaurant experience these days.
Last week, a hedge fund named Starboard Value released a 300-page critique on everything that was wrong with Olive Garden. Starboard Value is an investor in the restaurant chain, and is currently trying to take control of the company’s board of directors. Their analysis took aim at the breadstick policy, claiming that it resulted in waste and lost profits. Olive Garden servers are supposed to bring out one breadstick per person, plus an extra one for the table, but apparently they load the basket with far more than that; Starboard’s contention is that this practice leads to cold, uneaten breadsticks.
If you feel an episode of white bread withdrawal coming on, you can relax. Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden’s parent company, vigorously defended their unlimited breadstick policy. Darden said it reflected “Italian hospitality,” and declared that they have no intention of changing it.
The past few years have been rough for Olive Garden. Sales, profits and customer counts have steadily declined. The chain has experimented with a small plate format to keep up with the times, and has recently offered promotions such as the Never Ending Pasta Pass, which for $100 offered customers the opportunity to consume unlimited pasta for seven weeks (the true ninth circle of Hell).
Amid all the speculation, experimentation and hand-wringing over Olive Garden’s downward spiral, no one has seemed to verbalize the real reason the chain is faltering: They serve lousy food. You hardly need to be a restaurant critic to arrive at this conclusion. The company is certainly capable of doing better: Darden operates a number of chains including The Capital Grille, America’s most popular steakhouse, but the Olive Garden remains mired in mediocrity. All the breadsticks in the world won’t make up for the appetizers, entrees and desserts that follow.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com