Olive Garden Blues

Imagine you own one of those restaurant chains, the kind you see clustered around suburban intersections.  Some of the restaurants promote particular types of cuisines, like steaks or Mexican dishes or seafood.  Others offer a more generic menu, and their hook is that you’ll have a fun time with fun people as you eat their cheeseburgers and fries.  All of them, however, are competing for the business of middle class Americans — and the competition is fierce.

Olive Garden is one of the restaurants that is locked in that competition.  It features Italian food in buildings that are supposed to look Italian, and its advertising shows happy, bright-eyed people eating different pasta dishes and soup and warm bread.  But the ads aren’t working, apparently, and its CEO has decided it needs to do whatever it can to get more people into the restaurants.  So, he’s decided to go with more low-cost meals to try to increase market share — a move that some analysts and observers have criticized.

I’ve never been to an Olive Garden restaurant, but when I read the story linked above I decided to take a peek at the comments.  As I post this, there are 457 of them . . . and the lion’s share talk about the quality of Olive Garden’s food and service, not its prices.  It’s fair to say that most of the comments aren’t very flattering about Olive Garden with respect to either category.  In fact, they’re devastating, and could easily discourage other readers from every trying an Olive Garden in the first place.

What’s the lesson here?  I think it’s a simple one that apparently has been lost in all of the CEO-type moves and advertising-driven management of chain restaurants:  people go out to eat looking for good food, whether it costs $8.99 or $10.99 or $12.99.  If your restaurant business is failing, you should look first to the quality, freshness, and taste of the dishes you’re offering to the public.  If customers think the food is wretched, you’ll lose their business.

When did restaurants stop understanding that their business is, first and foremost, about the food?

On A Romantic, Court-Ordered Date At Red Lobster

In Florida, a judge hearing a domestic violence charge has ordered the husband accused of the misconduct to take his wife to dinner at Red Lobster and then bowling.

The case arose when the man failed to wish his wife a happy birthday.  They got into a fight, and she says he pushed her against a sofa and grabbed her neck.  The judge noted that the husband had no record and concluded the incident was “very , very minor.”  So, rather than setting a bond or requiring jail time, the judge ordered the husband to buy flowers and added, “then he’s going to go home, pick up his wife, get dressed, take her to Red Lobster. And then after they have Red Lobster, they’re going to go bowling.”  The couple also will be required to get counseling.

Grabbing someone’s neck doesn’t seem “very minor” to me — although, in fairness,  I haven’t heard the evidence or presided over countless domestic violence cases — and a husband who doesn’t remember his wife’s birthday has committed an unforgivable sin.

In any case, the sentence seems ill-advised on other grounds.  For example, why would you order a husband who has been accused of domestic violence to stoke up on fried foods at Red Lobster and then take his wife to a place where the guy will be provided with 16-pound projectiles and expected to hurl them with as much force as he can muster?

The case raises other questions, too.  Will the couple’s attorneys accompany them on the date?  (“Honey, I think I’ll order the Ultimate Feast.”   “Objection!  That’s the most expensive entree on the menu!”)  As between the generic dinner options available in suburban America, how did the judge decide that Red Lobster was more romantic than, say, Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse?  And finally, how many people eating at Red Lobster on any given evening are there by reason of court-ordered punishment?