A little over a year ago in Orlando, we happened to pick a Darden restaurant, Seasons 52, for Mother’s Day brunch. It was a great choice and I thought at the time, Darden–which also owns and operates Red Lobster, The Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Bahama Breeze–must really know what they’re doing.
According to a new feature in Fast Company, Darden does indeed know what it’s doing. I particularly like how the article describes the careful brand caretaking that goes on.
Every year Olive Graden sends 14 top employees, many of whom have never set foot in Italy, to spend a week in an 11th-century village in Tuscany and learn from Sergio and Daniela Zingarelli, a husband and wife who operate a restaurant, winery, and inn. The couple and other local experts expose the Americans to everything from how olive oil gets pressed to how to layer flavors in a Bolognese sauce. The Olive Garden employees buy fresh vegetables at a market in Florence and prepare a multicourse Italian meal. Since 1999, some 850 employees have attended CIT; 80% of them are still with the company.
There are also “ideation trips” to Olive Garden’s Culinary Institute of Tuscany, during which chefs work in local Tuscan restaurants. They have come back with dozens of ideas that have served to expand and update Olive Garden’s menu. Gone are the days of puzzling hybrids like Italian nachos. Today, many items on the dinner menu carry a CIT logo, designating that they were inspired by a staffer’s experience in Italy.
These experiences — and menu items — provide an authenticity that’s rare for a chain.
The reason this is worth noting is Olive Garden understands that a superior experience in the restaurant can only come from motivated, dedicated staff. Olive Garden is helping its people believe in the brand promise, which directly impacts the customer.
Employees, Olive Garden CEO David Pickens says, need to believe that serving meals and cleaning tables and cooking pasta in a hot kitchen is meaningful. “It’s very difficult for the experience of the guests to exceed the experience of the staff,” he says. “We put the two together.”