Earlier this year, Restaurant Business took a peek behind the curtain at the Italian chain's popular annual promo. Read on for a closer look.
Where it began
Olive Garden wanted to build on its almost-20-year-old, most popular promotion, the never ending pasta bowl. The ideation went from a “what if” to reality when a cross-functional team—finance, marketing, operations, communications and others—gathered in a room and were asked for big ideas, says Jessica Dinon, manager of communications. The same multidepartment team continues to meet each year to discuss how to make the Never Ending Pasta Pass even bigger.
In the pass' first year, “[w]e only sold 100 to see how it did,” says Dinon. The morning-of announcement created a frenzy, with passes selling out in a second and crashing the website. By year three, Olive Garden sold 21,000 passes in less than a second and hit the same timeframe in year four, with 22,000 passes.
Each year, the chain gets better at anticipating the technology needed, says Dinon. Before the launch, it knows the expected volume and does a stress test on its site.
Evolving manager response
With only 100 passes across 840 restaurants during the first year, corporate had to make sure managers remembered that the passes existed—and remembered the logistics of how to process the pass.
Since pasta passes are personalized, managers have an opportunity to personalize the experience, addressing the guest by name and making a connection.
In addition, with more passes available, all general managers get a pasta pass to give to a loyal guest.
Olive Garden initially had to address consumers saying the promotion was “too good to be true.” Same with last year’s addition of the Pasta Passport—an all-inclusive trip to Italy for $200.
Knowing that the pass sells out in a second, and that guests are watching the countdown clock, Olive Garden now makes sure to provide as much how-to-buy information up front.
Dinon says the Pasta Pass isn’t as much about ROI as it is connecting with guests, and that it’s an example of how Olive Garden has improved communication with consumers. Pasta Pass guests came in, on average, 10 times during the promo. Most users did bring other paying guests with them during each visit.
“The success of it would be surprising and probably scary to other brands," says Dinon. Still others are trying, with homages such as Smashburger’s Burger Pass, a$54 pass entitled that users to $1 burgers for 54 days, and Au Bon Pain’s Endless Coffee Mug, through which users received free refills in 2018 for the upfront cost of $199.