We Went And Experienced Olive Garden Firsthand -- And It's Clear The Brand Needs Help

Olive Garden’s business is under scrutiny after a hedge fund published a 294-page takedown of the brand that criticised its breadsticks strategy, inauthentic menu, and “barely edible” food.

To see whether these criticisms were warranted, we paid a visit to an Olive Garden in Manhattan.

The waitstaff seemed unaware of the scathing hedge fund presentation, and things felt like business as usual.

Our experience revealed some big problems at Olive Garden and confirmed Starboard’s allegations that the brand needs help.

Here’s a timeline:

12:21 p.m. We arrive at the restaurant, which is mostly empty. Several other parties are waiting. We’re told there will be a 5- to 10-minute wait.

Empty olive gardenBusiness InsiderThe restaurant was mostly empty, but we still waited for 20 minutes.

12:40 p.m. After walking through the mostly-empty restaurant, we are seated at a booth.

12:41 p.m. The menu is confusing. There are complicated combinations and deals listed. Menu items include Spanish-style tapas, paninis, a burger, pasta, and meat dishes. Our party of four tries to determine what ordering the lunch combination will get us, and come up stumped. We wait for our waitress to explain what’s going on.

12:42 p.m. Our waitress takes our drink orders. She clearly explains the lunch combination, which includes soup, salad, and breadsticks for $US8.99. You can add a small pasta or appetizer for an additional $US4.99.

12:50 p.m. We place our food orders, starting with the Lasagna Fritta appetizer.

12:55 p.m. Our breadsticks, soup, and salad arrives. We receive 5 breadsticks for a party of 4 (this is in keeping with the ‘old’ Olive Garden policy, according to Starboard). The breadsticks are slightly overdone, but otherwise good.

Olive Garden saladBusiness InsiderThe breadsticks were slightly overdone, but otherwise good.

12:57 p.m. Our Lasagna Fritta arrives. The pieces are covered in a little sauce. The dish is excessively greasy. “It tastes like cheap fried food,” says one person in our party. Others complain it is too soggy. No one at our table likes this appetizer.

Olive Garden Lasagna FrittaBusiness InsiderThe Lasagna Fritta was bland and greasy.

1:02 p.m. Our waitress checks on us. We order more dressing for the salad, which is almost entirely dry.

1:04 p.m. Our food arrives. We split the final breadstick, which has been sitting out for almost 10 minutes. The consistency and temperature are still good. It doesn’t taste stale.

The spaghetti with meat sauce is extremely bland. The pasta is slick (and clearly not salted). The meat sauce is ladled on top of the dish, rather than being mixed in. Our server doesn’t offer to grate cheese on top of the entrees.

Another person in our party ordered Chicken Scampi, which is a chicken dish with peppers and onions. This dish was good except for the buttery sauce, which drenched the dish.

Chicken scampi Olive GardenOlive GardenThe Chicken Scampi pasta includes grilled poultry, onions, peppers, and pasta in a butter sauce.

The Capellini Pomodoro with grilled shrimp was less greasy. But the shrimp had a fishy taste that didn’t feel fresh.

Olive Garden main dishBusiness InsiderThe Capellini Pomodoro with shrimp.

The Five Cheese Ziti al Forno was good, but the sauce was ladled into the center of the dish. This left many of the noodles dry.

Five cheese ziti al forno olive gardenBusiness InsiderFive Cheese Ziti al Forno.

We also tried the fried parmesan asparagus as a side dish. This was greasy, with no hint of the parmesan cheese promised.

Olive Garden AsparagusBusiness InsiderParmesan Asparagus with a creamy lemon sauce.

1:08 p.m. We are out of breadsticks.

1:16 p.m. Our server asks if we need anything. We ask for more breadsticks. She asks whether we are paying together or separate.

1:22 p.m. Our server brings 4 breadsticks this time. They are very crisp, overdone, and salty. There is no consistency between the first and second baskets. We ask for the check.

Olive garden breadsticksBusiness InsiderThe breadsticks were slightly overdone.

1:30 p.m. We receive the check and ask for a to-go box.

1:33 p.m. Our waitress comes and puts the leftover pasta in a to-go box right at the table. She takes our credit card for processing.

1:39 p.m. We get our check back. We do not receive the chocolate Andes mints that are customary after a meal.

1:40 p.m. We leave the restaurant.

Olive garden to go containerBusiness InsiderOur to-go breadsticks and pasta dish, ordered as part of the ‘buy one, take one’ deal.

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