And if there’s one great weakness that chain restaurants have, it’s familiarity.
It all depends, I suppose, on the person doing the dining.
Take, for example, Olive Garden, the chain featuring Italian-American cuisine that has plenty of restaurants available across Central Florida – appropriate, considering that the first Olive Garden was opened by General Mills on Dec. 13, 1982, in Orlando.
Now headquartered in Orange County and a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants, Inc., Olive Garden operates more than 750 Italian-themed full-service restaurants in the world.
So, with growth like that, what works so well for this particular franchise? I’ve visited two of their local restaurants in recent months, the first at the Fashion Square Mall at 3675 E Colonial Drive in Orlando, and the other at Rolling Oak Commons shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners.
In both restaurants, the ambiance is familiar: the rooms offering booths or tables for casual atmosphere dining, the “Bienvenudo” signs welcoming patrons, the baskets full of hot breadsticks, and those fine Italian wines like Porta Vita that seem so inviting. If you’ve been to an Olive Garden restaurant before and enjoyed the experience, chances are you can stop into one anywhere in this region, this state, or even the country, and find that exact same experience satisfactorily replicated.
Chains are difficult restaurants to review, because they defy traditional dining critiques. As I said, one of the great strengths that an Olive Garden has is the ambiance doesn’t change much, you know what kind of service to expect, and, most of all, you’ll remember the menu. Dining with a friend on Monday, we sat down in a booth at the Four Corners restaurant, and neither one of us gave more than a cursory glance at the menu. Based on past visits here, we both came prepared when the waiter arrived.
“I know what I want, I don’t need to look at the menu,” my friend An told the waiter. That’s actually a high compliment, because it shows that Olive Garden’s quite familiar menu of Minnestrone or Zuppa Toscana soup, Bruschetta or Fried Mozzarella appetizers, or meals like Cheese Ravioli with Marinara or meat sauce, Pasta with Alfredo sauce, or those signature fresh oven-baked breadsticks, have all passed the taste test with a large segment of its patrons and they keep coming back – knowing exactly what their favorites are.
Not every diner wants that experience. For some, familiarity becomes repetitious, and those are likely to be the diners who avoid chains altogether, and instead seek out family-owned, “mom and pop” restaurants, or perhaps even more specialized ethnic meal restaurants that are not a part of a franchise. Those diners are far more likely to view a chain as offering a kind of assembly-line-fashion type of cooking that rarely if ever alters from a standard and predictable approach. They go elsewhere to find a meal that can take them by surprise and lets them marvel at the chef’s originality or boldness in the kitchen.
But again, Olive Garden works in part because the regular diners know exactly what they want, and appreciate it when they get it. It’s not easy for the critics to challenge such a well-proven formula.
One thing that did strike me at the Four Corners restaurant, though, is that staple of any fine dining establishment: the Specials of the Day sign.
While it’s true that my menu featured those tough-to-resist Olive Garden regulars like Chicken Parmigiana with Spaghetti, Lasagna Classico and Seafood Alfredo, the specials were intriguing as well.
The new entrée of the day was a Stuffed Chicken Florentine topped with spinach alfredo, and the dessert was Tuscan Bread Pudding served with almond caramel and vanilla ice cream.
There was even a seasonal cocktail – a Toasted Marshmellow Martini, mixed with Kahlua, Amaretto and Bailey’s, with toasted marshmellows and ice cream.
If all that doesn’t sound positively inviting, chances are your favorite ice cream is vanilla and your favorite lunch every day is a ham sandwich, hold the mayo.
And that may be one of the true keys to the success, and enduring popularity, of a franchise like Olive Garden: each one sticks with that proven and durable formula that patrons have come to expect, while also being given just enough leeway to offer something unique whenever possible. There is still the opportunity for the “surprise” meal.
Besides, at the Four Corners restaurant, I noticed something else: the sign on the door noting that “Thanksgiving Day we will be closed to be with our families.”
So we have each franchise, still a part of the larger company, but also a little family onto itself, ready to welcome your family in to see how well they can deliver that classic Olive Garden menu … with perhaps a surprise or two in store for the most adventurous patrons.
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