Olive Garden is one of the most well-known Italian restaurant chains in the United States. Founded in 1982, it currently operates over 800 locations across North America. Olive Garden is owned by Darden Restaurants, which also owns popular chains like LongHorn Steakhouse and Yard House.
With its family-style service, classic Italian dishes like chicken parmesan and pasta fagioli soup, and unlimited salad and breadsticks, Olive Garden became one of America’s largest casual dining brands.
Rumors of Olive Garden’s Demise
Over the last few years, rumors have swelled that Darden would close many of its Olive Garden locations soon. With casual dining chains struggling compared to fast casual and quick service restaurants, many have speculated that Olive Garden’s heyday has passed and significant store closures are imminent.
Headlines like “Is Olive Garden Going Extinct?” and “Unsavory Future for Olive Garden?” have led some to believe that the iconic Italian chain won’t be around much longer. However, these dire predictions seem premature. While Olive Garden has faced challenges recently, the chain is moving to revamp itself for the future.
Factors Impacting the Casual Dining Industry
Several issues have impacted the casual dining sector, which has led to declining sales and store closures across the industry. Olive Garden has not been immune to these challenges.
Rising Food Costs
Food prices have increased rapidly, putting pressure on restaurants’ profit margins. Wholesale food costs were up over 15% in 2022 compared to the previous year. Restaurants have had to pay more for key ingredients, from meat and seafood to oils and grains. Rising costs have significantly affected the bottom line for a chain like Olive Garden, known for its abundance of food.
The nationwide labor shortage in the hospitality industry has also taken its toll. With fewer workers available, many restaurants, including Olive Garden, have had to limit operating hours and service. Higher wages to attract and retain talent have further exacerbated margin pressures.
Competition from Fast Casual
Many consumers have shifted preferences away from full-service dining towards faster, more affordable options. Chains like Chipotle and Blaze Pizza offer customization, quality ingredients, and speed at lower prices than casual dining. Olive Garden has lost some market share to these trends.
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Olive Garden’s Response
Despite the challenges, Olive Garden is strategically moving things around rather than shuttering locations.
Olive Garden’s culinary team has focused on enhancing the core menu with new items and flavors. Recent additions like toasted ravioli appetizers, chicken alfredo lasagna, and Italian cookie dough desserts have aimed to excite customers. Classics like lighter versions of chicken parmesan and shrimp scampi have also been refreshed.
To improve convenience and accessibility, Olive Garden has upgraded its online ordering capabilities and mobile app. Features like online waitlisting, curbside pickup, and pay at the table help meet shifting consumer preferences. Tabletop tablets for ordering and pay are being tested as well.
New Restaurant Design
Many locations are being remodeled with a more modern aesthetic. Decor and finishes are being updated to feel fresh and inviting. The kitchens and liquor bars are also redesigned to enhance service and efficiency.
The Future of Olive Garden
While the days of 1000+ store openings may be over, Olive Garden plans to adapt and solidify its positioning rather than survive.
Continued Menu Evolution
More menu enhancements and new items will be rolled out to entice guests and respond to their taste preferences. Keeping the core menu relevant while testing creative options will be key.
More Technology and Convenience
Elevating the digital experience and offering added conveniences like delivery, automated ordering, and easy takeout/curbside pickup will help modernize operations. Off-premise business is a major growth area.
Smaller square footage designs of ~3,000-5,000 sq ft will be implemented for new locations. The smaller building size lowers development costs in hopes of increasing returns.
While the environment for casual dining brands is undoubtedly difficult, Olive Garden remains a category leader. Sales have rebounded in 2022, showing the brand still has relevance. Olive Garden’s parent company is investing in evolving its offerings, technology, and design rather than shuttering stores.
Given Olive Garden’s intense brand awareness and loyalty, significant closures seem unlikely. With smart innovation, Olive Garden is poised to deliver Italian favorites to American families for years.
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Is Olive Garden closing for good?
No, Olive Garden is not closing for good. While rumors have swirled about closures, the company has not announced plans to shut down or go out of business. They are working to update locations and menus to adapt to industry challenges.
How many Olive Garden locations have closed?
Olive Garden has closed around 100 locations over the last 5 years, primarily closing underperforming or outdated restaurants. They still operate over 800 dining rooms in North America.
Has the pandemic affected Olive Garden’s business?
Yes, Olive Garden’s dine-in business was heavily impacted by COVID-19. Sales dropped, and locations were closed temporarily during lockdowns. They have rebounded well with off-premise and digital offerings.
What’s being done to update Olive Garden’s brand?
Olive Garden is enhancing menus, modernizing restaurant design, implementing new tech for online ordering/pay, and focusing on smaller footprints to refresh the brand.
Could another company buy out Olive Garden?
Given its broad awareness and loyal customer base, Olive Garden would unlikely be bought out. Parent company Darden continues investing in the brand. It remains their top revenue generator amongst the restaurant chains they own.