Chuck Salter’s Fast Company article “Why America is Addicted to Olive Garden” neither explains why America is addicted to Olive Garden nor even establishes that American is, in fact, addicted to Olive Garden. It is, however, a really excellent profile of the company, Darden, that owns Olive Garden along with a few other restaurant chains.
To throw a couple of bold claims out there that probably nobody agrees with, brands, chains, standardization, and replication are some of the most underrated economic phenomena and single-establishment retail businesses among the most overrated. There’s an association between multiple-establishment restaurants and low quality, but I think that if you take a broad view you’ll see that this is both a contingent phenomenon and a waning trend. Darden’s own Capitol Grille chain is excellent and Olive Garden is better than you care to admit. Besides which, all the legitimately first-rate chefs are branding and franchising these days, they’re mostly just a bit hesitant to get entirely above-board about what they’re doing.
The point, however, is not to argue the merits of these restaurants but merely to observe that they’re successful. And in particular, they’re successful at exactly what our health care & university systems are terrible at, namely actually balancing cost and quality or even at times finding innovative ways to skimp on quality. I doubt anyone involved would try to convince you that the Olive Garden is the world’s greatest Italian restaurant. But the point of something like their “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” exercise is precisely to identify top-quality practices and then think if there’s some way to do something vaguely similar for radically less money. If you look at the trajectory of college tuition, it’s clear that we’re not going to be able to simultaneously stay on that pace and expand the number of people who go to college. But a college degree seems to be very valuable. If it were possible to provide even a fraction of that value to more people cheaply, we’d be making major progress.