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Hold the Pesto

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

[From The Wall Street Journal]

One of these days the WSJ will finally stop arriving at our door.* Two months have passed since we stopped paying for it. But as long as it shows up, I’ll keep reading the great fluff features, such as yesterday’s on casual dining restaurants.

Regular Ron’s View readers know I have an unending fascination with Olive Garden. I’m determined to understand why people love it. My interest is more conceptual than experiential. Years can go by between field investigations. (Though see here for a report on our last field trip.) Thus, when new research appears on their business model and offerings, I devour it. I dream of dropping by Olive Garden’s research and development center, the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, next time we’re in the neighborhood. And I always ask Gail to unmute the TV or avoid the skip button on the remote when an Olive Garden ad appears.

What a joy, then, to discover yesterday’s WSJ article, with its review of the pressures on our national casual-dining chains to upgrade their offerings while maintaining their appeal to a broad demographic, and its focus on Olive Garden as the prime example. Let me highlight one revealing line:

“We don’t use the word authentic,” to describe the Olive Garden experience, [Olive Garden president John] Caron says. The chain prefers “Italian inspired.”

The article offers this example of Italian inspired:

Chefs at Olive Garden headquarters reverse-engineer menu items from real Italian dishes. A current seasonal dish, baked pasta romana—a mix of lasagna pasta, rich cheese sauce, spinach and either a beef or chicken topping—started as a fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs eaten by company chefs on a trip to Northern Italy.

Chefs found the dish “really rustic, but still kind of normal,” the magic formula Olive Garden chefs often look for, says Marie Grimm, director of culinary development for Olive Garden. In restaurant tests, the company tried a chicken version with roasted tomato sauce, but diners didn’t find it “cravable,” says Ms. Grimm. The restaurant switched to a cheese sauce.

That “fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs” sounds enticing, doesn’t it? But, if I went to a high-end Italian restaurant and saw that on the menu, would I choose it or would I search lower down the menu in hope of finding a dish of lasagna pasta, cheese sauce, spinach, and beef? Am I a member of the Olive Garden demographic? I don’t know.

I do know I like my pesto. Yet, earlier in the article we learn that “for chains that aim to entice almost every demographic group through their doors, there are limits. In several years of tests, Olive Garden diners often deemed pesto too oily, bitter or green.” I fear that I’m trapped between demographic groups, condemned never to find my proper home.

Read the entire article, check out the accompanying video, and study the graphic, which I’ve copied above.

*As a reminder of my desire to bar the WSJ from our house, see today’s opinion piece on Ron Paul by editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz, in which she feels free to describe him as “a leading spokesman for, and recycler of, the long and familiar litany of charges that point to the United States as a leading agent of evil and injustice, the militarist victimizer of millions who want only to live in peace.” And that’s only the beginning of her unsubstantiated hatchet job. Boy oh boy. I have written often of my affection for the WSJ’s Saturday arts and culture sections. The TV reviews, courtesy of Ms. Rabinowitz? Not so much.

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Categories: Business, Restaurants
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