As of 2012, Olive Garden restaurants account for 45% of the sales generated by Darden. Olive Garden operates more than 750 locations globally.
The first Olive Garden was opened by General Mills on December 13, 1982, in Orlando. By 1989, General Mills had opened 145 restaurants, making it one of the fastest growing units in the company's restaurant holdings. While not a critical success, it was popular, and its per-store sales soon matched sister company Red Lobster. The company eventually became the largest chain of Italian-themed full-service restaurants in the United States.
General Mills spun off its restaurant holdings as Darden Restaurants, a stand alone company, in 1995. Olive Garden is Darden's most value oriented chain with an average 2009 check per person of $15.00 (USD) versus over $90 (USD) at its sibling Capital Grille.
Brad Blum, a former president of Olive Garden, said that sales in existing restaurants sharply decreased, with a 12% decline occurring at one point, even though the company was quickly establishing new restaurants. Sandra Pedicini of the Orlando Sentinel said that "Darden reinvented the Olive Garden in the 1990s, from a floundering chain into an industry star."
As part of a February 2011 Darden analyst conference, the parent group announced it intended to add more than 200 Olive Garden locations in the following few years. The announcement came after a previous announcement that the company would be expanding into potential new international markets for the chain, including the Middle East and Asia, due to the maturity of the North American market. The company also announced it would begin licensing franchising partnerships, a new direction for the chain and its parent which had traditionally relied on expansion via company owned locations exclusively.
Parent company Darden also announced it was going to begin co-locating Olive Garden and sibling chain Red Lobster locations. The new format stores are designed for smaller market locations and will have separate entrances and dining areas but operate a single kitchen and support areas. The dining areas of the new format will be half the standard area found in more traditional Darden chains, but the actual building will be larger than stand alone operations of the chain. Menus will also remain separate, with customers only able to order from the location they are seated in.
In 2010, Olive Garden generated $3.3 billion in sales. Its closest competitor, Carrabba's Italian Grill, had generated $650.5 million in sales during the same year. By 2012, sales had decreased at Olive Garden. At the final quarter of 2011, sales at established Olive Garden locations had decreased by 2.5%. Chris Muller, the dean of the hospitality school of Boston University and a former restaurant professor at the University of Florida, said "What does Olive Garden stand for now? I don't know what it stands for." The Darden president and chief operating officer, said that Olive Garden at that point was "a beloved, but somewhat expected brand." The company unveiled a three course meal for $12.95 offer in an effort to try to stop the decline.
The original slogan for Olive Garden was "Good Times, Great Salad, Olive Garden". In March 2012, the chain was part of an Internet sensation when a review by columnist Marilyn Hagerty in the Grand Forks Herald went viral and spurred numerous national media appearances by Hagerty, including a televised visit to Olive Garden in Times Square in New York, N.Y.soup and breadsticks were added onto this menu item, the saying was changed to "When you're here, you're family."
Olive Garden was criticized for participating in Coca-Cola's H2NO program which sought to have customers order more profitable beverages over tap water.
I love Olive Garden Salad Dressing. It rocks! Sam’s Club carries Olive Garden Salad Dressing now available in a bottle.
Olive Garden Salad Dressing
1 package dry Italian Dressing
1/2 teaspoon dried Italian Seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Whisk together all the ingredients. Pour into container with a lid. Place in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
Pour over salad. Enjoy!