Olive Garden testing both small plates and family-style dinners in bid to win back customers

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Olive Garden is trying to figure out the way people want to eat by testing two different types of dishes — small plates and family-style dinners.

Darden Restaurants Inc., which has been struggling to win back customers, says it’s expanding its test of “Taste of Italy Small Plates” that cost between $4 and $5 at Olive Garden this week. Justin Sikora, a spokesman, says the idea is to cater to the dining habits of Millennials, or people in their 20s and 30s.

To cater to families, Olive Garden also started testing a $30 dinner deal for a party of four on weeknights, which includes two family-style platters.

The tests come as Darden works to revamp the image of Olive Garden to better reflect changing eating habits. For example, the chain started adding lighter dishes last year, which executives have said are already getting about 10 per cent of orders. As it works to fix its menu, Darden is also trying to attract customers by aggressively pushing deals and touting its affordable prices.

The strategy raises concern among some investors, who fear it will eat into profit margins. But Darden executives say growing traffic is critical to its long-term health. Since 2008, Darden’s customer traffic is down about 8 per cent. That also includes the Orlando, Fla., company’s Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse chains.

Darden said it will evaluate its test of small plates, which cost between $4 and $5, to determine whether it should do a national rollout this summer. The options include items such as Crispy Risotto Bites and Parmesan Roasted Asparagus.

The test of the family-style dinner is taking place at more than 40 restaurants in seven markets, including Omaha, Neb., Harrisburg, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., St. Louis, Hartford, Conn., Kansas City, Mo., and Raleigh, N.C.

The small-plates test is expanding to McAllen, Texas, Louisville, Ky., Portland, Ore., and New Jersey this week. It’s already being tested in Chattanooga, Tenn., Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Grand Rapids, Mich.