03/01/2013 06:25 pm ET

Olive Garden Changes Menu, Design To Make Chain More Modern

In the fast-moving world of chain restaurants, Olive Garden has long seemed like an anachronism.

The beige, eggplant and forest green Olive Garden logo, featuring a swirly cursive font and a stylized 3-D grapevine, screams early-'90s graphic design. Its menu is so focused on breadsticks and pasta -- not even al dente pasta! -- that it seems to have been written in a parallel universe where Robert Atkins never told America about the magic of ketosis. And the ersatz stone-and-terracotta architecture at most outposts looks positively medieval compared with the glassy-industrial styles favored by quick-service chains like Chipotle.

But all that may soon change. After Olive Garden's parent company, Darden Restaurants, cut its profit outlook for the year last week, executives revealed that they are taking drastic measures to bring Olive Garden into the 21st century -- and increase sales. Darden is the world's biggest casual dining chain. Olive Garden's 792 restaurants provide 45 percent of sales for Darden, which also owns Red Lobster and Capitol Grille.

"We're making a transformation to the brand," Olive Garden spokesman Justin Sikora told The Huffington Post by phone. "We're moving away from some of the things we've done in the past -- traditional Tuscan warmth -- and embracing a more contemporary Italy."

Sikora explained that the shift actually began in October, when Olive Garden launched a "Lighter Italian Fare" menu section of entrees with fewer than 575 calories and promoted it with an ad campaign emphasizing health rather than infinite breadsticks.

But just as the Italian Renaissance didn't really get going until Petrarch came along, Olive Garden's rebranding was moving slowly until the chain in January named a new CEO, Dave George, who previously headed Darden's LongHorn Steakhouse chain.

Glimmers of George's vision for the country's largest Italian-themed chain started to emerge in early February, when Olive Garden revealed a new all-black uniform for its waitstaff. But the full extent of George's plans started to become clear on Tuesday, when he unveiled major plans to Darden investors.

Olive Garden has revealed few details of the revamp, but it's clear it will touch almost every aspect of the dining experience.

That faux-calligraphy logo, for starters, is history. Sikora said the redesign process has only begun, so there's no telling what direction its replacement might take.

When it comes to architecture, Olive Garden is also abandoning the "Tuscan Farmhouse" template it adopted in 2000 in favor of a more modern, "less Old World" style. Sikora said that the company is delaying renovations of about 400 of its restaurants until after the company refines its new look.

"You're not going to see stainless steel showing up tomorrow in a Tuscan farmhouse," George assured investors.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, George said he wants to change the Olive Garden menu. Breadsticks, salad and fettuccine Alfredo are all safe. But they'll be joined, according to Sikora, by additional small dishes on the "Lighter Italian Fare" menu and "more protein-forward items" -- i.e. meaty entrees.

"Going forward, our grill items are going to take much more prominence in the menu," Sikora said.

The bulk of sales at most restaurants come from regular visitors, so rebranding, which could alienate devout fans, is inherently risky. Shifting away from carbs didn't save Italian chains Uno Chicago Grill or Spaghetti Warehouse from financial ruin.

But it's clear from Darden's awful sales numbers that the brand wasn't connecting with customers. (Or at least not 60 percent of customers.) So there's nowhere to go but up.



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