Thanks to the good folks at Olive Garden,”carbo loading” just took on a whole new meaning. On the eve of an expected dismal earnings report by its holding company, Olive Garden today offered a news-generating promotion: seven weeks of unlimited pasta for $100. The Never Ending Pasta Pass (NEPP) was available only to the first 1,000 customers that successfully connected to Olive Garden’s strained computer servers beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time today.
The promotion is a new take on the restaurant chain’s popular Never Ending Pasta Bowl (NEPB) deal. The more intense NEPP will give top-tier Olive Garden customers the privilege of stuffing as much pasta as they care to consume into their gullets between Sept. 22 and Nov. 9. Also included will be unlimited Coca-Cola, salad or soup and another wheat product, breadsticks.
When checked at 4:15 p.m., the passes were already sold out. Passed-over fans of the restaurant chain took to the company’s Facebook page, bemoaning their inability to take possession of one of the now-coveted NEPPs. One, however, typed “Are people really whining about not being able to buy the pass? Buy a gym pass instead.” To which others responded by demanding the holier-than-thou carbohydrate hater post a photo of himself.
While war wages around the world, and as if obtaining a pasta pass were a right enshrined in a national constitution, some complained that the deal was limited to too few gastronomes: “That was bull,” wrote one. “The site was crashed and never let me in. You totally underestimated the demand.” Another complained that at the moment her clock ticked 3:00 p.m. that the Olive Garden system went down so she could not sign up. “It actually makes me less likely to go now.”
Others were downright despondent and petitioned for compassion from the Pasta Gods, a.k.a. Olive Garden management: “I tried for an hour…. Please turn this frown upside down.”
The owner of Olive Garden is Darden Restaurants, Incorporated, which is is expected on Sept. 12 to announce a dismal earnings per share (EPS) of $0.32, a 40 percent decline from the same quarter’s EPS of $0.53 last year. Darden owns and operates more than 1,500 restaurants, employs over 150,000 people and dishes out more than 320 million meals every year. In addition to Olive Garden, Darden’s branded eateries include Bahama Breeze, Longhorn Steakhouse, Seasons 52, Eddie V’s, The Capital Grille and Yard House.
Darden’s website says that the company is set apart by having a deep understanding of its guests. In addition to an advanced understanding of the popularity of a loss-leader like the NEPP, the company surely knew that any number of their hard-core customers who lost out on the NEPP promotion would surely – as they now are – complain loudly. Apparently, all is proceeding as planned.
The company’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl is currently its most popular promotion, pushing unlimited amounts of pasta onto customers’ tables for $9.99 per visit. Last year’s NEPB promotion resulted in the serving of 13 million bowls of carb goodness.
As of 2012, Olive Garden represented nearly half of Darden’s nearly $8 billion annual revenue and is committing an act of creativity in its new effort to jack up Darden’s EPS. The attention in the media (including this article) and social media could benefit the straining Italian-ish restaurant chain in publicity and, especially, if a more expansive, “by popular demand” Never Ending Pasta Pass promotion is initiated.
Darden is a spinoff of General Mills, which opened the first of 818 world-wide Olive Garden restaurants in Orlando, Florida, United States, in 1982. Despite its enormous piece of the overall market (it’s closest competitor, Carraba’s Italian Grill, takes in just 20 percent of the cash Olive Garden does), the business category of “casual dining” has seen a plethora of competitors arrive on the scene in recent years. With a coincident push within the category on fresh, healthy eating, Olive Garden has struggled to adapt. Indeed, as the restaurant chain’s “brand renaissance plan” has rolled out, the dinner menu now includes smaller “tapas-style” plates.
Opinion by Gregory Baskin