Olivegarden.com Looks to Break Chain Image

Olive Garden does not want to be typecast as your typical chain restaurant.

Its new site at Olivegarden.com is designed to convey the food, wine and spirit of Italy. At the same time, it aims to personalize for consumers each of the 470 restaurants nationwide, shedding the persona of a chain in favor of a local Italian eatery.

“Our strategy for the Web site is consistent with our overall business strategy: We're a family of local Italian restaurants providing a genuine Italian dining experience,” said Greg Watson, director of brand marketing at Olive Garden, Orlando, FL.

That positioning is critical for Olive Garden, a $1.6 billion business owned by Darden Restaurants Inc., the world's largest casual dining company. Darden also owns and operates Smokey Bones, Bahama Breeze and Red Lobster restaurants.

“I think Olive Garden is experiencing a very cluttered marketplace,” said Debi Libuda, senior creative director at Agency.com, Boston, the agency that created the site. “They're starting to see more and more chain restaurants pop up, and more ethnic-specific restaurants, especially Italian dining, that Olive Garden sees as sort of a competitor they need to overcome.”

So the new olivegarden.com, a relaunch of a 3-year-old site, works hard to publicize its Italian credentials. It starts with the home page, which is emblazoned with this slogan across a photo of a family enjoying an Olive Garden meal: “Genuinely Italian.”

The Italian theme is reinforced with the tag line on the same page: “When you're here, you're Family.”

Clicking on the “Passions” tab pulls up recipes from Olive Garden Riserva di Fizzano, the U.S. chain's local restaurant in Castellina in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy. The restaurant's kitchens do double-duty as the Culinary Institute of Tuscany for training Olive Garden chefs.

For consumers keen to learn more about the Italian diet, there's information on staples such as olive oil, bread, pasta, cheese and wine.

Other features on the site include gift cards, a restaurant locator and a newsletter for which consumers have to yield their names and e-mail addresses for targeted local Olive Garden news. Consumers are offered $3 off a meal for filling out the newsletter details. The newsletter will build the chain's customer database.

Just as each Olive Garden restaurant has a plaque with the general manager's name and contact details, so does the customized site once the consumer types in his ZIP code and clicks on the local Olive Garden options.

“We don't want just to overwhelm with the many Olive Gardens across the country,” Libuda said. “We want to just make you feel that there's one right down the street from you and you can know these people by name and can walk in and actually experience personalized dining.”

Like all restaurants, Olive Garden's online marketing efforts are handicapped by the perishable and location-dependent nature of their core product.

“I don't think we're at a point where consumers are really going online and finding menus and help before they get to a restaurant,” said Barrett LaMothe Ladd, senior analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc., Lincoln, MA.

“They're not used to having restaurants online and making it a practice to go and figure out the passion, menu and the community within the chain. Especially from a chain perspective, where you've got one Olive Garden and they're all pretty much the same — you know what to expect, for the most part.”

Fast-food rivals such as McDonald's Corp., Wendy's, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday's, Burger King Corp., Jack in the Box and Subway use their sites either as online brochures or to run promotions with partners and stores. McDonald's, Jack in the Box and a few others also sell toys and merchandise around their brand icons.

Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, Atlanta, is one of the first restaurant chains to experiment with the sale of flash-frozen turkey online. Ordered online at www.popeyes.com, the turkey can be delivered with sides and is part of Popeyes' agenda to expand its Cajun cuisine menu.

The only e-commerce at the Olive Garden site is the sale of gift certificates as well as wine gift boxes and bottles through a link to its partner, wine.com.

To promote the Web site, Olive Garden will soon roll out a sweepstakes in association with cable channel Food Network's site, www.foodtv.com. Four grand prizes — a free trip for two to Italy — will be awarded.

Olive Garden check presenters have been instructed to mention both the site and the sweepstakes to sit-down customers. Cutouts of wine gift boxes already are up in various Olive Garden restaurants.

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