Onions or no onions, Olive Garden expands in 2023

AFTER testing the waters in the Philippines last year, Olive Garden is seeing green as it plans to open more branches this year. Just this week, it opened its second branch in Glorietta, and plans to open a BGC location in March.

Last week, for the second time since September, BusinessWorld sat down at Olive Garden again, to be reacquainted with its Tour of Italy platter, which includes Lasagna Clasico, Fettucine Alfredo, and Chicken Parmigiana, as well as never-ending bowls of Zuppa Toscana (a soup made of fennel-infused Italian sausage, potatoes, and a luxury in these times, white onions). We have to hand it to them: while BusinessWorld’s first visit last year at its SM Mall of Asia branch ended with a daze from aggressive flavors, the second branch showed off balance resulting in a pleasant meal. With the tempered tastes and the never-ending (their term for unlimited refills) soup, salad, and bread, Olive Garden in the Philippines may have more than a chance to be a new favorite for casual diners.

Greg Dalogh, Director for International, Darden-International said, “We of course start with our signature recipes that resonate worldwide. But then, based on our guests’ feedback, we can adapt the flavors.” He cites possible adjustments with sweetness, saltiness, mildness, mellowness, and other properties. “From what we’ve found through feedback, the flavors are a little more sweet,” he said about the Filipino palate.

The American-headquartered Darden Restaurants Inc. is the parent company of Olive Garden, and other restaurants like Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Longhorn Steakhouse, and The Capital Grille, among others. Olive Garden’s arrival in the Philippines is its first venture in Asia. Asked if they plan to open other Darden restaurants in the country, Mr. Dalogh said, “It’s certainly possible. We’re always looking for new franchise partners. Certainly, if the Bistro Group is interested in one of our brands, we would love to partner with them as well.”

“Bistro’s culture mirrors Olive Garden and Darden’s culture of warmth and generosity,” he added.

The Bistro Group isn’t holding back either. Responsible for bringing restaurants like Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Friday’s, Hard Rock Cafe, El Pollo Loco, and Randy’s Donuts to the Philippines, among others, The Bistro Group plans to open 50 more restaurants this year — a feat it had accomplished last year. Three of these will be TGI Friday’s, four of these will be Randy’s, and it plans to open the country’s first Fogo de Chão (a chain of Brazilian steakhouses) this year.

RC Tiongson, Chief Operating Officer for Olive Garden in the Philippines, discussed the Bistro Group’s aggressive strategy in the face of a recovering post-pandemic economy, and worrying crises in inflation, importation, logistics, and supply. “If you’re asking why we keep on opening, we take that opportunity to keep on opening while the others are closing. We’re very aggressive with getting new concepts and opening more restaurants for this year.”

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATIONAs real estate professionals would say, it’s still all about “location, location, location.”

“When others were closing, we took the opportunity to maximize the opening of more restaurants. Sayang naman (it would have been a waste),” said Ms. Tiongson. For example, late in 2018, the Bistro Group opened the country’s first Red Lobster at S Maison, but apparently, the market had not been ready for it. They temporarily ceased operations in the two branches (the other one was in Las Piñas), but the pandemic dealt the two branches final blows. Instead, those have been reformed into Japanese Watami restaurants.

In other malls, they tend to have a habit of opening Bistro Group restaurants close to each other. For example, during the opening of the Glorietta branch of Olive Garden last week, Ms. Tiongson pointed out the Modern Shanghai and Watami restaurants near it, and the TGI Friday’s a floor below. “We try to make concepts in one location. We believe it creates synergy. It encourages more customers in that area,” she said. “When we invest and open, we try to get bigger locations, and have two or three more concepts.”

ENDLESS PROMOS, INFLATION, AND ONIONSAs noted above, we noticed the abundance of onions in Olive Garden’s Zuppa Toscana at a time when other restaurants have had to eliminate or find substitutes for onions in their menus, due to a lack of supply and high prices when they can be had (now at about P600 a kilo). In another turn, many foreign franchises in the Philippines do away with “endless” promos when they arrive in the Philippines.

Of the “never-ending” servings, Ms. Tiongson said: “It is more costly, but at the same time, it is also beneficial. You need more volume for this kind of brand and concept,” she said. “We’re sticking with it because we know exactly that, that will be our edge compared to others.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Dalogh said that never-ending servings are a part of their DNA: after all, their old motto was, “When you’re here, you’re family.”

“You can’t find a restaurant that offers that kind of value, and for the quality,” he said. “It’s the service. It’s the warmth and generosity. That’s the Olive Garden base.

“That’s something that we’re very strict on, as well. Whatever markets around the world we open, that has to be there,” he said about the company’s culture.

As for the other problems arising from supply and inflation concerns, Ms. Tiongson says, “We can’t do anything about it because it’s beyond our control. What we’re doing in Olive Garden, we try to ensure that there is some kind of substitution is some items. But for those core products, we shall keep it as it is. We’re known for that.” She uses the cheese-laden Alfredo as an example. “Even if the cheese prices are high, we still have to keep our Alfredo with cheese, or else, we’ll be the same as others.”

We spoke of the onion shortage to Mr. Dalogh, who noted, “That’s where partnering with big groups like The Bistro Group (comes in). They have lots of buying power and pull. If there’s an ingredient like onions, they’re big enough that they can source it and get it there with their own logistics.”

Ms. Tiongson meanwhile said, “We keep our margins at par with what we are expecting. We don’t need to shortchange customers because of inflation. If you try to make your restaurant efficient, then I don’t think it should affect you that much.”

The Olive Garden’s Glorietta Branch is located at the third floor of Glorietta 3. — Joseph L. Garcia

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