Sympathy for Olive Garden

Nothing has changed at Olive Garden since the last time I visited, in 2003 in Momence, Illinois. There had been a long gap between my previous visit, in the late 90s in Flint, Michigan, but I found it to be much the same in that 2003 visit as it was during my childhood and adolescence. The decor, the service, and the food were all the same. The breadsticks were basically the same, as was the salad — with the precisely two small jalapeños and a lone olive. The menu had obviously changed to some degree, but the same old favorites were there: the “Tour of Italy” combo (The Girlfriend’s choice), chicken alfredo, pasta primavera.

And I’m going to take a risk here and admit: it was all pretty damn good. Not the best Italian food I’ve ever had, but definitely a nice dinner. When you think about the scale of the operation, it becomes even more remarkable. The restaurant itself (in Lincolnwood, Illinois) was massive by urban standards, and yet everyone received prompt, reliable service. According to the parent company’s most recent annual report, there are 748 Olive Garden restaurants spread throughout the United States (with the exception of Alaska). The scale of the operation is amazing — and it always delivers the same product. You know what you’re getting when you sit down to eat at Olive Garden, and when I look at my local independent Italian restaurant, I find that it’s of comparable quality but more expensive. It’s not quite at the world-historical scale of McDonald’s, but it’s up there.

Now I mainly eat local food, cooked at home from ingredients drawn from our CSA box and the local produce stand, etc., etc. I very rarely eat at chain restaurants, and I only ate at Olive Garden “ironically” (as explained in yesterday’s post). In this respect, I am your typical city dweller in most ways.

Yet ever since I read this article in N+1 (I know…) about food (which is not available in its entirety online, unfortunately), I have felt that we too easily gloss over the motivation behind the huge chains and national brands we all deride. Giving the masses access to safe food of predictable quality is a huge fucking deal that huge portions of the world cannot rely on — and that Americans could only rely on starting basically with the postwar boom.

The idea that a McDonald’s, a single company (PDF) can deliver that level of consistency to 33,510 restaurants in nearly every single country on earth — literally millions of meals per day — is almost inconceivable. Yet it has multiple competitors with similar global reach — and of course there is diversification within this realm, so that you get more high-end places (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc.) as well, with a range in between (scaled-back sit-down places like Steak and Shake, Applebee’s, etc., and the new “fast casual” category including Cosi, Panera Bread, etc., etc.). There is an obvious sense in which this represents a huge advance for the human race — all within the last fifty or sixty years.

I hope we can take it for granted that I know all the obvious critiques of these chains. Yet I wonder if we might need to take a view of these operations similar to what Jameson does with “Walmart as Utopia.”

8 thoughts on “Sympathy for Olive Garden

  1. It’s interesting. Over here, there’s not nearly the intensity of urban-dwelling anti-chain animosity. Hip-ish people do sometimes eat at middle-to-upmarket chains. Pizza Express and other Italian joints, a slew of mid-level burger bars, and my personal favorite, Nandos. (I eat there every Friday, including tonight. And it’s coming to the USA – google NandosUSA).

    I think it has something to do with a different relationship to the suburbs – i.e. they’re not quite as detested as they are in the USA, the cities are full of suburban escapees but ones that don’t quite carry around the same “fuck New Jersey – never going back there!” attitudes. Also labor costs – chains are cheaper to run through economies of scale (ask Pizza Express to leave off one of their topings and see what answer you get. The pizzas are frozen!) When young Americans move into NYC, Chicago, SF, wherever, the thought of going to an Applebees or Olive Garden instantly becomes the most uncool thing possible, a distinct throwback to the grossness of childhood in boring place X.

  2. Sorry – meant to explain that the labor cost issues comes down to higher minimum wages in the UK, as well as, from what I can tell, much less tolerance for illegal laborers. (I.e. you don’t encounter the NYC pizzeria situation – two Italian guys up front and 7 Mexicans in the back / doing deliveries).

  3. Ads, I think you’re onto something, but a lot of those mid-to-upmarket chains you mention — the whole slew of Italian ones like Pizza Express and Zizzi, for a start, but also coffee shops like Caffe Nero, Patisserie Valerie, etc. and even actually Starbucks — weren’t at all pervasive in British suburbia until very recently, in fact for me they were even coded urban. Case in point: when I left for university, there were no chain coffee-shops in my home town except for one branch of Costa. Now when I go back there are (minimum) two Caffe Neros, two Starbucks and three Costas. There were also no chain restaurants, and now there is a Zizzi, a Mexican chain and a Pizza Express.The massive expansion of those chains into provincial towns is very recent and I don’t think they’d be a big part of suburban memory for a lot of twenty-thirty-fortysomethings. Also I think it’s worth noting that English people, particularly lower-middle-class ones, have generally gone out to eat much less than Americans, mainly because it’s more expensive but I’m sure there are other cultural factors here. Also, until the fast-casual thing, there was almost no cheap-but-reliable sector along the lines of diners unless you were old enough to go to a half-decent pub.

  4. I was thinking the conversation would be more along the lines of whether a “good” version of McDonald’s was possible — healthy food, humane practices, etc. But maybe that sounds too much like a localism debate, which people are perhaps (and if so, perhaps rightly) tired of in this context.

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