“Small plates” or tapas-style service is the new hotness in the restaurant industry, so much so that Darden Restaurants (the company behind Red Lobster, the Capital Grill, and Olive Garden) wants to introduce small plates and sharing to its Olive Garden restaurants.
The entire industry segment of chain sit-down restaurants hasn’t been doing very well over the past few years. Traditional fast-food chains (McDonald’s, Taco Bell) have done well, and the emerging midmarket niche of fast casual restaurants (places such as Chipotle that are a bit more expensive than traditional fast food but still don’t have table service) has grown a lot. But Olive Garden has done especially poorly.
My guess is that bringing the small plates concept downmarket out of the prestige dining arena and into the chain restaurant space is a good idea. But I’m not sure that Olive Garden is the place for it. It’s no coincidence that Olive Garden has stumbled into a funk at the very same time that Italian-American red-sauce-style cooking is enjoying a renaissance at prestigious New York restaurants. Middle America is falling out of love with old-school plates of pasta, so naturally foodies are rediscovering its joys. Lately I’ve been enjoyed some fairly basic pasta dishes (the pici carrettiera at Ghibellina, the mezze rigatoni at Red Hen) at new Washington, D.C., restaurants, so obviously the tacky chain trends are going to go in the other direction. Both the strength and the weakness of Darden’s mass market brands is that they have clearer culinary identities—Olive Garden is for pasta, Red Lobster is for seafood—than a Chili’s or an Applebee’s. The strength is that they seem more like real restaurants, and teams designing the dishes and training the cooks can actually focus and take advantage of operating at scale. The weakness is that you’re a hostage to macro-level cuisine-type trends. Years of anti-carb propagandizing have changed the perception of Olive Garden’s Tuscan concept from appealingly high-end and fancy to unfashionable, and it’s hard to fix that since the concept is so deeply embedded.
If the time is right for a sit-down chain focused on small plates and sharing, I’d be looking for a whole new concept. Perhaps something Greek or Levantine with meat on skewers and shared flatbreads and dips and plates of rice.