September 23, 2013

Red Lobster and Olive Garden cannot live on bread alone

I wasn’t surprised at the news that profits are down at Red Lobster and Olive Garden. For me, they’re more of a novelty now — somewhere to go for nostalgia or a random Wednesday night. Even though I still love the bread, the places just aren’t the same.

Cheddar Bay biscuits and bottomless bread sticks?

I have plenty of Red Lobster and Olive Garden memories to spread on that delicious bread. I remember once trying escargot at an Olive Garden in South Carolina as my sister laughed because I had no clue I was eating snails. I was 12. And then, at 17, my prom date took me to a fancy waterfront restaurant, but I felt a little sad and out of place because all of my friends were at Red Lobster and the like. I didn’t understand the beauty of local, indie restaurants back then.

Things change. In time, I would outgrow my cravings for big-chain restaurant food. Those places would become more of a novelty — somewhere to go for nostalgia or a random Wednesday night. Even though I still love the bread, the places just aren’t the same.

So I wasn’t surprised at the news last week that Olive Garden saw a 4 percent drop in sales over the summer. Red Lobster is down 5.2 percent. And that’s in spite of efforts to promote new lighter dishes, small plates and better deals. Now their parent company, Darden, is replacing its president and cutting 80 to 85 staff positions to save $50 million.

Some analysts say the middle class isn’t eating out as much. Post-recession, that is true. The restaurant industry overall is in a battle with the fast-casual options of Noodles & Co., Chipotle and Panera. People want deals and they want quality.

And more and more, we want local. Once I was exposed to indie restaurants and learned the awesome that is buying and supporting local, I just wasn’t interested in big-chain dining. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally crave Cheddar Bay biscuits. It doesn’t mean that the addictive salad and bread sticks don’t call my name every now and then.

Over the weekend, I went to Olive Garden. Tons of Northland teens were there on homecoming dates. The 15-minute wait was no big deal. But once we were seated, service was slow and shoddy. Our waitress had a hard time remembering our very basic order: chicken scampi and seafood Alfredo. The bread sticks arrived timely, warm and fresh. The salad? Eh. While the dressing was every bit as delectable as usual, the lettuce was a limp and lame pile of iceberg. When our food came, the noodles were overcooked. I asked for fresh ground pepper. She brought me crushed red pepper in a paper cup.

When all was said and done, we spent about $40 on sub-par food and less-than-stellar service. Still, we tipped 20 percent. We said thank you. The waitress didn’t even respond. For all of that, we should have gone to BRGR.

But as I grabbed my chocolate mints, I looked at the table of teens next to us. They were smiling and laughing in between text messages and high school gossip. For them, Olive Garden and Red Lobster are the good life. But eventually, they will get over it the way they got over McDonald’s Happy Meals.

So Darden and its chains have to rethink things beyond surface makeovers and gimmicky deals if they expect to grow. Because the idea that the bread is going to carry the business has gone stale.

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