Hedge fund Starboard Value delivered the mother of all food reviews this week with a 294-page slide presentation tearing apart Darden Restaurants, the struggling parent company of Olive Garden. It charges the Italian chain with all manner of incompetence—from serving too little alcohol to serving too many breadsticks—but the most powerful accusations are reserved for its pasta.
Here’s why: Olive Garden has stopped salting its pasta water.
“According to Darden management, Darden decided to stop salting the water to get an extended warranty on their pots,” Starboard, which is in a proxy fight for control over Darden’s board, explains. “Pasta is Olive Garden’s core dish and must be prepared properly. This example shows how disconnected Darden management is from restaurant operations and how little regard Darden management has for the guest experience. If you Google ‘how to cook pasta,’ the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water.”
According to the slides, they also just ladle the sauce over the pasta rather than properly combining them in the pan, which is the second day of Pasta 101. (Although, granted, when the sauce is sufficiently bland I don’t know how much it matters.)
I don’t even understand the economic sense of the move. I mean, let’s say you either live in an area that lacks the culinary sophistication of Utica and doesn’t have any decent independent Italian restaurants or are for some reason opposed in principle to eating anywhere but a national chain. Once you went to the Olive Garden and have pasta that’s horrible even by national chain Italian restaurant standards, wouldn’t you take your business to Buca de Carino’s Macaroni Grill instead? (Which is indeed what seems to be happening.) Can the longer warranties possibly be worth it? I wonder if treating their customers with contempt is almost an end in itself.
It also strikes me that Darden HQ being located in Orlando seems overdetermined.