TAMPA — It’s a classic restaurant dilemma: How to refresh a menu when customers already fill the seats in search of iconic dishes?
For Orlando-based Darden Restaurants Inc., the challenge was how to adapt its Olive Garden concept to the changing dining landscape while not messing with such staples as the popular soup, salad and breadsticks combination that attracts droves of cost-conscious customers.
The changes are intended to counteract a dip in the Italian-American chain’s sales, which dropped 5.4 percent in the United States during the first three months of 2014. Darden operates 830 Olive Garden restaurants worldwide. Its sister restaurant, Red Lobster, recently was sold by Darden to the private equity investment firm Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion in cash.
In February, Olive Garden revealed what it described as the most dramatic menu change in the restaurant’s 32-year history, adding more than 20 appetizers, entrées, desserts and cocktails and giving customers options for customizing their dishes.
The restaurant is putting a new emphasis on midday dining speed with its “pronto lunch,” which features sandwiches, small plate appetizers and flatbreads. Pastas also can be ordered as sides. The new Italiano Burger tops a patty with crispy prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula and marinated tomatoes with a garlic aioli spread.
On Tuesday night, a private tasting for media took place at the Olive Garden on North Westshore Boulevard. About 20 food writers, bloggers and other guests sampled an 11-item menu that included Crispy Risotto Bites, Fried Artichoke Fritta and Pappardelle Pescatore.
Other dishes focus on lighter fare. The marinated Garlic Rosemary Chicken, served with caramelized garlic cloves, fresh spinach and garlic Parmesan potatoes, is among the menu section aimed at guests who want entrées that contain fewer than 575 calories.
Another section, the Cucina Mia dinner entrées, lets customers mix and match six pastas, five sauces and multiple toppings for $9.99.
Olive Garden executive chef Jim Nuetzi said Wednesday the new menu updates the previous one, which was last tweaked significantly about five years ago. Development and testing took about a year to complete before the menu was rolled out. Some items, such as the Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich with roasted bell peppers and mozzarella on a focaccia bun, were immediate hits. Others, such as the Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad Topper with fresh mozzarella bites, roasted tomato, bell pepper, basil, kale and a drizzle of olive oil, took more testing in a variety of markets before making it into the lineup.
“They’re the same salads customers expect, but they love to enhance them,” Nuetzi said of the topper. “That’s been going very well. We’re essentially playing off a favorite.”