The Olive Garden's Secrets to Success

How popular Italian chain restaurant gets diners in and keeps them coming back.

September 10, 2010, 12:21 PM

Sept. 13, 2010— -- From lasagna to pizza and creamy pasta topped with Parmesan cheese, Americans have a love affair with Italian food. Ninety-seven percent of Americans will tell you they love to "mangia italiano" -- or eat Italian.

For almost 30 years, the Olive Garden has been serving Italian comfort food to diners, becoming the world's largest and most successful Italian-style restaurant chain.

"They grew up with [Italian food], it's very familiar," said Clarence Otis, CEO of Darden Restaurants, the largest full-service restaurant company in the world and owner of several chain restaurants, including the Olive Garden, Capital Grille and Red Lobster. "And I suspect that's true whether your heritage is Irish or Italian, African American or Latino. I would say Italian food from that perspective is soul food."

Each week, more than 4 million Americans -- mostly women in their 40s and 50s -- seek out Italian soul food at one of the 721 Olive Garden restaurants around the United States. An average check of $14.95 contributes to Olive Garden's nearly $3.3 billion in annual sales -- even during these tough economic times.

Otis says that the average American family dines out about four times a month, but during financial downturns that number is cut in half. So their number one secret for keeping the diners coming in is stressing Olive Garden's value.

Unlimited salad and breadsticks are a major draw. Last year, Olive Garden served 612 million breadsticks and 165 million family style bowls of salad. That's enough for the entire population of the United States to have two servings of salad and two breadsticks each.

"We serve almost 9 million breadsticks a day at Olive Garden," said Dave Pickens, president of the Olive Garden. "The key is they've got to be made perfectly."

Their signature starters are baked in hundreds of batches each day and delivered fresh to every restaurant; the breadsticks, like the chain's soups and sauces, are never frozen.

The never-ending pasta bowl also lures customers. Olive Garden was the first full-service Italian restaurant to offer unlimited pasta portions, an all-you can-eat combination of different kinds of pastas and sauces for $8.95.

While some diners belly up for bowl after bowl, the promotion actually is profitable, since the average Olive Garden customer eats only about 1½ bowls of pasta.

The chain doesn't offer the never-ending pasta bowl year-round. Instead, it runs the promotion to help boost sales at times when dining out tends to dip and customers are more enticed by a good value.

"Traditionally, the fall season was not a very robust season for our industry," Pickens said. "Summer's over, you've taken your vacation, kids are going back to school."

Olive Garden Menu: 'Genuine, Not Authentic'

As for the rest of the menu, many of the dishes take a few detours on their way over from Italy.

"You know, we're really focused on being genuine, not necessarily authentic," Pickens said. "We're not sure authentic would translate so well."

Olive Garden has a culinary institute in Italy, where chefs learn how to make classic Italian dishes. Every year, about a hundred chefs and managers from Olive Garden restaurants around the country make a week-long trip to the chain's Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where they are exposed to Italian recipes, cooking techniques and Italian culture. The trip serves as inspiration for the Olive Garden menu, but only a few of the 150 ideas that come out of each excursion actually make it onto the menu. They must be adapted for the American palate and complete a year-long testing process in select restaurants.

"We've had some things that I really thought would do very well in tests that didn't," said Pickens, naming stuffed pork chops -- a dish commonly found in Italy -- as one that was scrapped from the menu. He said that Americans prefer beef and chicken as their main meat selections.

Olive Garden chef and director of the Culinary Institute of Tuscany Paolo Lafata let "Good Morning America" into the test kitchen to share some of its secrets of how to "Americanize" Italian fare.

"In Italy, we like to have four to five courses in one meal. ... In America, unfortunately because of our culture, everything is done fast," Lafata said.

To accommodate Americans' on-the-go lifestyle, Olive Garden cuts down the traditional Italian mealtime, incorporating separate courses for pasta, meat and vegetables all into one dish.

Americans also don't generally like the firmer "al dente" texture of Italian pasta, so Olive Garden cooks the pasta exactly one minute longer.

And they have to accommodate the American appetite for a lot more cheese than Italians commonly use in their dishes. Olive Garden imports six types of cheeses from Italy.

Olive Garden also adds more cheese to its pasta dishes than Italians use in their recipes. Six types of cheeses are imported from Italy, and customers can't get enough.

The two most popular dishes ordered at the Olive Garden also are among the cheesiest: lasagna and pasta with Alfredo sauce.

To keep up with America's changing tastes and nutrition guidelines, Olive Garden has started offering lighter fare, such as a seafood brodetto dish with scallops, shrimp and tilapia, mushrooms and white wine sauce. Next year, Olive Garden, along with all other national restaurant chains, will have to post calorie counts on the menu.

For now, Olive Garden has found a recipe for success. Out of all the chain restaurants owned by Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden is the top earner. Despite these tough economic times, it plans to add up to 55 more locations in the United States, and venture into the Middle East and Latin America.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" website.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events