If you visit an Olive Garden this month, you might get a whiff of change. The Italian food chain has begun rolling out its redesigned décor and logo—a two-course re-branding effort to ditch its cheesy reputation for one that’s slightly more sophisticated, albeit still family-friendly.
The overhaul is part of a “brand renaissance” announced last March by Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden’s parent company, and the effort includes smaller lunch portions, faster dine-in service, and online ordering. A logo update, the first in more than 15 years, and an interior remodel are the visual signals of Darden’s strategy to win back customers lost to such fast-casual brands as Chipotle and Panera Bread, which offer freshly prepared food at lower prices.
If you look closely, you might think that the new Olive Garden bears a striking resemblance to Panera Bread. Olive Garden has ditched its drab interior and faux Old World vibe for a more modern, open feel by removing some walls and decorating the remaining ones with brighter hues and modern art. Look familiar?
To be fair, a few changes reinforce Olive Garden’s restaurant status. The plateware is now all-white to enhance presentation. There’s a lobby, and the bar area allows diners to booze up before gorging on unlimited bread sticks.
The décor is inoffensive and charmless, much like the new logo. The revised mark—“based on work assisted by Lippincott, a nationally-recognized design firm,” according to Olive Garden—is a simplified take on the horrible yet endearing old symbol, which featured a loose cursive font and a cluster of grapes against a stucco-like background. The new logo plays it safe with a more restrained script, an ash-gray backdrop, and olive branches where the grapes once were. It also replaces the tagline “Italian Restaurant” with “Italian Kitchen,” connoting fast and high-quality fare.
The logo received a fair share of criticism when it was unveiled earlier this year. Writing for Fast Company’s Co.Design website, John Brownlee praised the honesty of the old design:
“At least you knew what it meant: bad food served in a depressing mass-produced setting.”
A more generous appraisal might see the new Olive Garden design as less bad than the old. Still, that might not be enough to get customers in the door.
By re-branding, Darden hopes it can prop up its sagging star, which accounts for 40 percent of the parent’s revenue but suffered a 3.4 percent drop in same-store sales for the 12 months that ended on May 25. That month, Darden sold its under-performing Red Lobster division for $2.1 billion after the seafood chain was hit hard by surging shrimp prices. Darden knows its chain lags competitors, but the re-branding suggests that instead of trying to sprint ahead, the company has done just enough to try to catch up.