Archive for April 5, 2009

Olive Garden Again

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment
Applebee's, Times Square, New York

Applebee's, Times Square, New York

In a post in late January, I commented on a WSJ article by their restaurant writer Raymond Sokolov in which he compared Olive Garden to the famed Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. As I noted in the earlier post, Olive Garden is one of the six national chains owned by Darden Restaurants, along with Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille, and Seasons 52. It remains a mystery to me why Olive Garden and Red Lobster, the two we know best, are so successful. I’m happy enough to eat at them, but I’m probably happier elsewhere.

With this as background, I turn to the topic at hand, which is an article by Andrew Martin on the front page of yesterday’s NYT business section on the difficulty facing restaurant chains now due to the combination of overbuilding and the recession. He writes:

During a decade of easy credit and loose spending, American businesses built too many cars, houses, stores and factories. It turns out the country built too many restaurants, too.

Now consumers are cutting back, and dining out is among the casualties. Finer restaurant chains have been hit hard, and so have the casual sit-down places that flooded suburban shopping centers and tourist districts across the country, aimed straight at middle American tastes.

A few chains have boarded up already. Many others are going into survival mode, trying to renegotiate their loans, cutting staff, offering bargains to customers and closing less profitable restaurants. Analysts predict thousands more restaurants could close in the next year or two.

The very next part of the article is what got my attention:

The pain is evident even amid the neon glitz of Times Square, which draws big crowds of tourists used to eating at places like Red Lobster and Applebee’s.

Zane Tankel opened an Applebee’s franchise there eight years ago. At the time, he said his nearest real competition, an Olive Garden, was about six blocks away.

Now, Mr. Tankel could sit in his restaurant and throw rocks through the windows of a half-dozen competitors, including ESPN Zone, Dave & Buster’s, Chevys and Dallas BBQ.

“We’ll see some weeding out,” he said one recent lunch hour, sitting in a near-empty Applebee’s dining room overlooking 42nd Street. Noting a restaurant above him and another across the street, he said, “One of the three of us is not going to be here.”

So in midtown Manhattan, national chain restaurants have sprouted to meet the needs of “tourists used to eating at places like Red Lobster and Applebee’s.” Can this really be true, that tourists come to Manhattan and seek out Red Lobster for dinner? I can understand the point. I must admit that I have eaten more than once at McDonald’s in Paris. (For good reason, of course.) I appreciate predictability and reliability as much as the next person. But really, with the dizzying array of Italian restaurants in the city, I just can’t imagine why one would go to an Olive Garden.

By the way, later in the article, we learn: “Of course, there are some exceptions to the industry’s malaise, even in the casual dining sector. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, recently announced a better-than-expected outlook for the coming year. In the most recent quarter, same-store sales dropped 3 percent, compared with a 6 percent decline for the rest of the casual dining industry.”

Categories: Economy, Restaurants

Where’s George

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment


On Friday, I noticed that a dollar bill in my wallet had a website written on it along the top margin. Looking more closely, I saw that it said I got curious, typed in the URL, and was taken to the website. Once there, I realized I had read about this years ago. Along the top of the page is the banner UNITED STATES CURRENCY TRACKING PROJECT. I learned that if I typed in the denomination, bill series, and serial number, I could find out where the bill had been before it circulated to me. How could I resist? Of course, this only works provided previous holders of the bill have entered it at the site. And obviously someone had done so, whoever wrote the URL on the bill itself, which I realized is a good way to increase the odds that some later bill holder will discover the site and enter the bill, as I was doing.

To my astonishment, once I entered the bill, I discovered that it had been entered only once before, presumably by the person who wrote the URL on it, and this was way back on March 16, 2003. Somehow, despite the presence of the URL, it took over 6 years for someone to get curious enough to go to the website, figure out how it works, and enter the bill. The person who introduced the bill is from Chesapeake, Virginia but picked up the bill in Blanco, Texas.

I entered two more ones, both of which had histories. One was passed on by someone in Pasco, Washington last month and then passed through Blaine, Washington. The other was entered in Ypsilanti, Michigan on June 1, 2007 and then ignored until I tagged it on Friday.

I need to post more bills, but I realized that it’s best to do so when you can add in the comments section a statement about where you got the bill, and I have no idea where I got the bills currently in my wallet. So I’m waiting until I get some more bills as change.

I don’t know how much time I’ll invest in this. It’s not a high priority. But I’m looking forward to finding out where the bills I’ve entered end up. Oh, that’s another thing about how the site works — you can enter bills and learn their history, but if you want to be kept informed about future hits on bills you enter, you need to register and set up an account (for free), which I’ve done. Consider doing so yourself. It might be fun.

Categories: Today's News