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'Can Olive Garden be fixed?' Quit snickering, foodies

By msnbc.com staff and news services

Sometimes all-you-can-eat breadsticks just aren’t enough.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Olive Garden is losing customers and is trying to change strategy to win customers back.

We will pause while self-described foodies snark themselves silly and the chain’s defenders snark themselves silly over how self-important and fun-free said foodies can be.

Darden Restaurants Inc. owns Olive Garden, as well as Red Lobster and several smaller national chains such as The Capital Grille. The company declined to comment for the Tribune article, which reported the following major changes coming:

  • New menu focusing on lower-priced items.
  • Remodeled restaurants.
  • Getting rid of the ever-so-perky commercials.

Analysts seemed to think Darden, which has a history of pulling off turnarounds, was up to the task.

"Can Olive Garden be fixed? Absolutely. Yes. Is it an easy fix? No," said Mark Kalinowski, a restaurant analyst who covers Darden for Janney Capital Markets, according to the Tribune.

Darden shares were off 1.16 percent in midday trading Tuesday.

It was the second negatively themed article in a major news outlet in slightly over a month. In late December the Wall Street Journal reported on the problems the chain was having revamping its menu -- even down to the fact that the foundation of its customer base didn’t want the company messing with the type of bowls it served its all-you-can-eat salad in.

Heidi Schauer, Darden's manager of media relations, emailed this comment:

Olive Garden continues to be one of the strongest brands in casual dining. Olive Garden is a value leader with a sound business model, and is beloved by our guests. Right now we’re working on several initiatives to enhance the overall guest experience, including the development of a new core menu with even greater affordability, the creation of a new advertising campaign, and the remodeling of more than 400 restaurants to make them remain wonderful settings for a great Italian dining experience. Each of these initiatives will take time to complete and we’ll be able to share our progress at the appropriate time after they have been introduced to the public.

The Journal article did contain this bit of self-awareness from John Caron, president of Olive Garden. “"We don't use the word authentic," he said. The company would rather be thought of as "Italian-inspired."

We’re not going to pile on Olive Garden. Yes, they can be accused of using way too much cheese and cooking their pasta several offramps past al dente. But we also, long ago, worked in a little California town where one opening was the talk of the community for months.

What’s your Olive Garden experience?