Best Menu Revamp

Makeover boosts sales at casual-dining chain, added accents highlight Italian flavors, ambience

By Naomi R. Kooker

Dishes: Stuffed Chicken Siena, Chicken Castellina, Three Meat Ravioli with Sage-Butter Sauce, and Salmon Piccata. In addition, the company launched summer specialties of Shrimp and Crab Ravioli and Berries & Zabaione.
Price: $10.50-$13.95
Rollout: June 23, 2003
Company: Olive Garden, Darden Restaurants Inc., Orlando, Fla.
Units: 534 in the United States and Canada.
Description: One dish, the Chicken Siena, is a baked 6- to 8-ounce boneless chicken breast. It is filled with a mixture of chopped sun-dried tomatoes, black pepper, chopped scallions, minced garlic, chopped parsley, egg, heavy cream and two ounces of cheese. It is served over 6 ounces of pasta.

Developer: in collaboration with the Olive Garden culinary team

The heart of Italy lies in central Florida. Or so the culinary folks at the Olive Garden, located not far from Disney World and Universal Studios, would have it seem.

The reason is that when the Italian casual-dining chain redeveloped its menu last year to bring out even more of the tastes and ambience of Italy's various regions, it succeeded in bringing a bit of that country to much of America. Olive Garden, of Darden Restaurants Inc., also succeeded in winning the Nation's Restaurant News 2004 MenuMasters Best Menu Revamp Award.

Such new items as Stuffed Chicken Siena, Chicken Castellina, Salmon Piccata and Three Meat Ravioli helped the company boost systemwide sales in 2003 to $2 billion from $1.9 billion in 2002. That works out to average annual revenues of $3.9 million per restaurant. That's a lot of Italy.

The launch also included two seasonal dishes, a Shrimp and Crab Ravioli entrée, and a Berries & Zabaione dessert.

Although four principal people developed the new menu — Salli Setta, senior vice president of culinary and beverage; Greg Schweizer, director of culinary development; Tim Blaise, director of culinary operations; and Paolo Lafata, senior executive chef — the company credits its entire culinary team for providing input and tweaking the menu.

"There are dozens of others who touched the menu and brought it to life in some way in all 534 of our Olive Garden restaurants," notes company spokesperson Mara Frazier.

In a similar showing of company allegiance, Olive Garden attributes its record same-store sales to more than just its award-winning menu revamp.

"We attribute new sales to many things, not just the menu," notes Setta, who leads technical and creative development of the menu and wine list. "The menu has been among many things that have contributed to a continued same-restaurant sales growth now for 38 consecutive quarters."

Feedback also has been great; folks are ordering the new dishes "in large numbers," she adds.

All of the new dishes were inspired in Italy and then reworked for American diners. Olive Garden partners with the Rocca delle Macie winery in Tuscany on two ongoing endeavors. They are Riserva di Fizzano restaurant, where many Olive Garden dishes are born, and the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where company culinarians go to train and get inspired.

"We train from November to March every year, and this year we sent 100 managers from our restaurants. They learn about food and wine together, but primarily food," Setta says. "We do a lot of work with our partners in Italy. Our Principato regional wine is custom made for us in Italy and imported exclusively for Olive Garden. Even the bottle is custom made for us."

Many of the chain's current ingredients are imported from Italy, she says.

"We import all of our pecorino cheese, which we grate tableside at our restaurants, from Sardinia," Setta notes. "Our balsamic vinegar is from Modena. We are the largest restaurant importer of Italian wines in the world."

All of that ties in with the company's perspective that fresh, authentic ingredients are the foundation for great-quality food.

"That's why we're constantly sourcing those things," Setta explains. "That's why we go to the market in Florence, and we're always looking at that stuff. That's really one of the tenets of the CIT: Great food is made with great fresh ingredients."

Olive Garden's menu reflects not only fresh food but also regional tastes; Italy abounds with varying regions, and each has its own identifying flavor.

"The sauce of the Chicken Siena is reminiscent of puttanesca sauce; variations are found throughout Italy," Setta says. "The artichoke and pancetta that are found in the Chicken Castellina are also very much reflective of multiple regions of Italy. Artichokes appear throughout Italy; you see them all over the road on the ride between Rome and Florence. They're a staple."

The Three Meat Ravioli is stuffed with Italian sausage, beef and chicken and then topped with a creamy sage-butter sauce made with fresh sage, another Italian staple. "Sage is an herb that is very much a part of Italian cuisine, something the chefs were extremely excited about bringing to our menu," Setta says.

"We are constantly looking for ways to bring new news to our menu," she explains. "We have quite a loyal following. People like to experiment with new flavors and diverse flavors, and they find Olive Garden is a great place to do that. Our guests can experiment, but it's still approachably authentic."

That favorite company term, "approachably authentic," sums up the brand's directive: To bring new components of food and the overall Italian dining experience to America from Italy in a comfortable way so that customers can experiment with ease.

Both of the menu's new seasonal additions, Shrimp and Crab Ravioli and Berries & Zabaione, are examples of taking the tastes of Italy and presenting them in an approachable manner for American diners, Setta says.

"We tried to reinvent what is very much a staple of cuisine in Italy and the United States, which is ravioli," she explains. Ravioli is very approachable, while seafood — which is typically found in the coastal region of Italy — is something people love, she explains.

The Berries & Zabaione features fresh strawberries and blueberries served at their peak, as is the custom in Italy, and topped with a light Marsala custard.

Another essential element Setta's chefs also source from Italy is one that can't be seen or tasted but only felt: passion, Setta notes.

"From the inspiration of a dish in Italy to the advent of that dish in the U.S., it's all about passion and commitment to give our guests the best opportunity they have of enjoying an Italian dining experience in the U.S.," she says.

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