Olive Garden is bringing back its Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion for the first time in two years, putting an end to questions about whether the offer was gone for good.
Executives for Olive Garden parent company Darden Restaurants in December suggested that the chain may no longer need the promotion, saying it was performing just fine without the traffic boost it brings.
But now, the 887-unit Italian chain is struggling with traffic, particularly among lower-income guests who are hurting from inflation. And on an earnings call last week, CEO Rick Cardenas did not rule out resurrecting the promo as long as it helped the bottom line.
“Anything that we do should emphasize our brand equity and be more profitable than they were before,” he said in response to a question about the bottomless bowls.
The 2022 version of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl will try to accomplish that with a higher price point: An unlimited serving of select pastas will cost $13.99, plus another $4.99 for toppings—meatballs, Italian sausage or crispy chicken.
The last time the promo ran, in 2019, it cost $10.99.
The move comes as many chains are pushing value offers to appeal to price-conscious consumers. But they’re charging higher prices than in the past as they look to strike a balance between driving sales and protecting their own profits.
On that note, Cardenas emphasized that Olive Garden’s value messaging will focus on generous portions rather than price.
“We don't anticipate changing our messaging to be a pure value play,” he said. “At Olive Garden, it's never-ending craveable Italian food. At [sister concept LongHorn Steakhouse], its quality, and they talk about quality. They don't have to talk about price.”
Still, the return of the promo shows how much the operating environment has changed in the past year. Olive Garden decided to ditch the Never Ending Pasta Bowl in 2021, when its restaurants were busy and short-staffed. Same-store sales that quarter exceeded the same period in 2019, the last time the promo ran.
This year is a different story. In its most recent quarter, Olive Garden’s same-store sales rose just 2.3% year over year, and traffic was down 9% compared to pre-pandemic levels. So it is turning to the Pasta Bowl once again.
It will be available from Oct. 3 to Nov. 20. Pasta options are fettuccine, spaghetti, rigatoni and angel hair, and customers can choose from five sauces: creamy mushroom, traditional marinara, five cheese marinara, traditional meat sauce and alfredo.
It’s the 25th time Olive Garden has offered the Never Ending Pasta Bowl.
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