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Sam Platt

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Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Sam Platt » Sun Dec 03, 2006 11:14 am

Ran by Olive Garden this past Friday for a quick dinner on our way home from Christmas shopping. As always, my wife and I ordered wine with our food. I usually get their house red, Principato, which is really not bad for the price. On this night I decided to branch out and try a glass of Valpolicella. On arrival I could immediately tell that it was corked. I explained the problem to the waiter who immediately took the wine away and brought a sample from another bottle. No cork taint there.

What did impress me though was what happened next. The manager came to apologize and brought with him the original corked bottle along with the new bottle. He asked if I would mind letting some of his wait staff taste the two while I explained what was wrong. I was glad to do so. Five waiters/bartenders came by one by one and sampled the two. Many of them did not know much about wine, but they were stunned by the difference in the tainted and untainted wine. At the end of the meal the manager thanked us for educating his staff and comped my drinks and main course. I thought it was great that such a chain establishment showed interest in actually learning something about their wines. A pleasant surprise.
Last edited by Sam Platt on Sun Dec 03, 2006 2:19 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Carl Eppig

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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by Carl Eppig » Sun Dec 03, 2006 11:36 am

That's fantastic Sam, and a good shot in the arm for a much maligned chain. Wish I could say the same about others including one certain independent that I offered free training to three separate times to no avail. I ask the owner if he would at least advise his waitstaff that they would get bigger tips on a bottle of wine than on a $3.50 dessert that they put much more effort into selling.
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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by Ed Draves » Sun Dec 03, 2006 12:40 pm

That is an awsome story. I've always enjoyed Olive Garden.
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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by Jenise » Sun Dec 03, 2006 1:32 pm

I believe Wine Enthusiast just named Olive Garden's entire staff of "wine ambassadors" Sommelier of the Year--the article claimed that some 30,000 such employees have that title, which seemed a bit high unless every single waitron is a "wine ambassador". One tends to snicker--merely pouring wine does not a sommelier make--but one can't laugh off service like you received.

On the other hand, the one time I took my mother in law to one (it was her favorite place) and complained to our server that our lasagna was inedible due to being burned black on the bottom and like mush above (it had clearly been overcooked by hours), he stared at me like I'd grown horns, shrugged, and left. Staggeringly incompetent.
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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by ClarkDGigHbr » Sun Dec 03, 2006 4:18 pm

I also like this story. However, to me the real question is this. Was that manager simple taking individual initiative here, or was he responding to a corporate-level drive to improve staff wine knowledge? If it was the former, customers are likely to not see changes in staff behavior across the chain. The latter should achieve that, but it will likely take time for this to occur.

So, Let's assume it was part of a corporate-level program to improve staff knowledge about wine. This has significant potential for substantive profitability impact. After all, if their more knowledgeable service staff is able to influence more wine sales and/or push more upscale wines, Olive Garden wins. And their customers probably walk out happier for it, too.

Of course, my next question is "How do they propose to handle food quality issues like the one cited by Jenise?" Personally, I would not have tolerated that behavior, and would have had the manager at my table right away. My wife is very uncomfortable with actions like that, but the way I see it, someone has to give businesses the message they are falling down on the job. I typically find that if they care, and you do it nicely, they respond very positively in words and/or deeds.

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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by Carl Eppig » Sun Dec 03, 2006 6:43 pm

Don't know if Jenise's situation went down like this or not, but a lot of chains have a crew that just takes things from the kitchen to table, but are not your waitperson. In a Ruby Tuesday recently with a friend, a young fellow plopped a plate in front of our friend. It had excessive fluid on it, and it had made a piece of bread soggy. Our friend protested, but the kid just blinked his eyes a few times and left. Fortunately our waitress reappeared almost immediately and took the plate back into the kitchen and fixed everything.
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Re: Kudos to "Oliver Garden"

by TimMc » Mon Dec 04, 2006 1:37 am

Olive Garden just wants to save a customer, IMHO.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Andrew Shults » Mon Dec 04, 2006 2:57 am

In any service profession, there are always a few people who have a personal commitment to quality service that exceeds their employer's commitment. IMHO, it sounds like this manager was one of those people. I hope he rises to a more personally and financially rewarding position with an employer who will appreciate his standards.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Dave Erickson » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:53 am

I've never been to an "Olive Garden." I was under the impression that these were restaurants serving "Italian" food to people who don't like garlic. Whatever. The manager is one smart guy: He took what could have been a bad situation and turned it into gold. He'll go far.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by MtBakerDave » Mon Dec 04, 2006 1:22 pm

My guess would be that the manager in Sam's story showed individual initiative. I'd be willing to dine at that store, but I'll still avoid Olive Garden generally.

First time I went there was with a group from work on lunch break. I figured the best way to get something reasonably freshly cooked from a chain restaurant was to order something a little offbeat. I ordered eggplant parmesan. Big mistake! My entree took much longer to come out of the kitchen than everyone else's, and they all started eating, because we had a limited lunchtime. When my entree finally came out, it was soggy on the outside and frozen in the middle. There was no time to replace it, as we all had to get back to work, so I only got salad for lunch. They comped the entree for me, but I had to pay for salad. Needless to say, I avoid Olive Garden, except possibly for the one in Sam's town.

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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Oliver McCrum » Mon Dec 04, 2006 4:39 pm

Dave Erickson wrote:I've never been to an "Olive Garden." I was under the impression that these were restaurants serving "Italian" food to people who don't like garlic.


Or people who think garlic is the main flavoring in Italian food, which is worse. The 'BAM! Kick it up a notch!' school.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Mark Willstatter » Mon Dec 04, 2006 9:32 pm

Randy R wrote:
Sam Platt wrote:I thought it was great that such a chain establishment showed interest in actually learning something about their wines. A pleasant surprise.

The bartender poured the last half glass from one bottle, went to get another bottle, opened it, and filled the glass from the new bottle well within my view. I didn't say anything then, but I thought it might be interest to those reading this thread.


I guess I need an education here: what's wrong with that? Assuming the wine turned over rapidly and that last half glass hadn't been in the bottle a long time, why would you care whether the glass of wine came from the same bottle?
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Hoke » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:04 pm

You know, it's always interesting to see how the responses start to develop in a thread like this, with an almost immediate dichotomy between the group that says,

"Hey, it's good that a base-level mega-chain is paying attention to the low end side of the market, and encouraging basic wine drinkers (and non-wine drinkers that might get into wine this way) to enjoy a glass of wine with a cheap plate of pasta whatever. Sure, it's not fine dining, and it's sure not going to bring in the wine geeks, but it generally makes people more wine conscious, so it's gotta be a good thing, right?"

as opposed to the other group that automatically starts laughing at the pretension of a place like Olive Garden, with its flush 'em in and flush 'em out corporate mentality of mass produced corporate microwaved menus, saying

"Hey, I wouldn't be caught dead in an Olive Garden with all those low class people with no taste. The food is swill. The wine is worth than swill. And I sneer at anyone who thinks it is anything more than that."

Somewhere between the elation and the condescension is where I exist, I suppose. I don't go into an Olive Garden by choice, no. Their processed style of food doesn't appeal to me, frankly. I know what they have to do to ensure that standardized food preparations get to the table with sufficient consistency, thank you, so I'm not interested. (And that processed sickly yellow glue they call a lemon and caper sauce is hideous.) But I know lots---and I mean LOTS---of people that do go. And among those people, the idea of consuming a wine...any wine...with a meal is a rather revolutionary notion. Or at least, it was until recently.

So while I don't frequent the Olive Garden very much, some of my kids do, and a bunch of people I know do. And if Olive Garden is raising the bar....even by a millimeter...for wine appreciation in this country, then I'm all for it.

After all, some of those people might eventually find their way here, so they can then look down upon the poor ignorant people who eat at....gasp...the Olive Garden. :D
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by TimMc » Tue Dec 05, 2006 1:35 am

Again. Olive Garden is just trying not to lose a customer.


I seriously doubt "quality" had anything to do with it.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Rahsaan » Tue Dec 05, 2006 1:42 am

TimMc wrote:Again. Olive Garden is just trying not to lose a customer.


I seriously doubt "quality" had anything to do with it.


Yes, and I don't know if anyone has mentioned the cleverly cheap/efficient way of showing people what corked wine tasted like while a customer's bottle was available.

Anyway, living in Berkeley you don't even see Olive Garden. So they don't feel relevant.

Shows what I know.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by TimMc » Tue Dec 05, 2006 1:45 am

You aren't missing much.


Trust me, Rahsaan.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Oliver McCrum » Tue Dec 05, 2006 2:26 am

TimMc wrote:Again. Olive Garden is just trying not to lose a customer.


I seriously doubt "quality" had anything to do with it.


That manager knew what 'corked' meant, cared enough to show his crew what corked meant, and took care of his customer when the check was made up. I have had far worse experiences in name restaurants when it comes to returning corked wine, he's unusual.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Oliver McCrum » Tue Dec 05, 2006 2:30 am

Rahsaan wrote:Yes, and I don't know if anyone has mentioned the cleverly cheap/efficient way of showing people what corked wine tasted like while a customer's bottle was available.

Anyway, living in Berkeley you don't even see Olive Garden. So they don't feel relevant.

Shows what I know.


Once he'd decided to take the bottle back he could do anything he wanted with it, it was going back to the distributor anyway. I think he did a great thing.

I do the same when I'm running tastings, a badly corked bottle is a great learning opportunity. Let's not forget that many members of the trade don't really know what 'corked' means, let alone customers.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Bob Parsons Alberta » Tue Dec 05, 2006 11:36 am

At tastings here in town, where I am known to help out (!!), letting participants nose a tainted wine is a learning experience for everyone. The "wews" and "pews" are a revelation!!!
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Jenise » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:04 pm

And if Olive Garden is raising the bar....even by a millimeter...for wine appreciation in this country, then I'm all for it.

No argument. But isn't it fair to think that Sam's great experience has far more to do with met a particularly competent employee than it does OG's corporate policy toward selling more wine? I would assume so, by the same token that I don't presume my one poor experience proves that OG is committed to serving burned food.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Mark Lipton » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:16 pm

Oliver McCrum wrote:
Once he'd decided to take the bottle back he could do anything he wanted with it, it was going back to the distributor anyway. I think he did a great thing.

I do the same when I'm running tastings, a badly corked bottle is a great learning opportunity. Let's not forget that many members of the trade don't really know what 'corked' means, let alone customers.


Hear, hear, Oliver! I am so tired of getting into pitched conflict with pourers at tastings over their bottle being corked. Granted, people have different levels of sensitivity to cork taint, but if I'm ITB and aware that I have limited sensitivity I am damn sure going to solicit a second opinion rather than blow off a consumers' concern with some platitude or another.

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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Redwinger » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:39 pm

Mark Lipton wrote:
Oliver McCrum wrote:
Once he'd decided to take the bottle back he could do anything he wanted with it, it was going back to the distributor anyway. I think he did a great thing.

I do the same when I'm running tastings, a badly corked bottle is a great learning opportunity. Let's not forget that many members of the trade don't really know what 'corked' means, let alone customers.


Hear, hear, Oliver! I am so tired of getting into pitched conflict with pourers at tastings over their bottle being corked. Granted, people have different levels of sensitivity to cork taint, but if I'm ITB and aware that I have limited sensitivity I am damn sure going to solicit a second opinion rather than blow off a consumers' concern with some platitude or another.

Mark Lipton


Mark/Oliver,
I'm continually amazed how many ITB types, especially distributors, haven't a clue about TCA. The rep comes marching proudly into the store with a bottle that has been previously opened and tasted at a few other locations as he/she made their daily rounds. One sniff and it is clearly corked..and I've had the reps vehimently disagree, which made me immediately question their business saavy as well as their palate.
When I was ITB, if a customer brought a tainted bottle back, I never argued and didn't sniff the bottle until the customer left the store. My usual response to the customer went something along the lines of "I'm very sorry for the problem and inconvenience. Would you prefer a refund or a store credit"?
Consumers even are less prone to detecting TCA IMO. They think the wine merely sucks and that the Redwinger guy who recommend it doesn't have a trustworthy palate. Well, on this last point I may be guilty. :D
I forgot what my point was in making this reply, so I'll just go take my medication.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Hoke » Wed Dec 06, 2006 2:07 pm

Jenise wrote:And if Olive Garden is raising the bar....even by a millimeter...for wine appreciation in this country, then I'm all for it.

No argument. But isn't it fair to think that Sam's great experience has far more to do with met a particularly competent employee than it does OG's corporate policy toward selling more wine? I would assume so, by the same token that I don't presume my one poor experience proves that OG is committed to serving burned food.


Oh, sure, Jenise, I agree.

The manager that Sam encountered is a standout--and would be in any organization. But make no mistake that in part the actions of that guy were "vetted" (generally supported by) the corporate organization as good policy.

It is important that OG made a serious committment, within the scope of their context, their price points and their culture, to create a more wine-friendly internal environment. When a company, especially a bottom-line oriented company, which a mega-chain HAS to be, devotes time, money, and infrastructure to promoting employee wine focus, it means one thing: that company is recognizing that their is increased revenue available in appealling to the wine-drinking population, and they are willing to stake their profit on by establishing that identity as part of their marketing focus.

That is a pretty significant change from the past in this country. And it appears to be working (for OG anyway). It's not a novel concept for us here to think of having wine with a meal---but it is for average America, I can assure you. We live in a country where approx. 11% of the people drink about 90% of the wine, remember. (Thanks for doing more than your fair share, by the way, Jenise. :) )

Many people...many people on this particular site....bemoan the fact that we don't have a "wine culture" blahblahblah. Yet OG makes a significant step in helping to inculcate/build a wine-culture in this country (to be specific, wine as a part of a good meal) at the populist level....and they largely get sneered at by the very people that are always saying they want America to have a wine culture!

Again, I don't dine at OG. Don't like the food, and am less than whelmed by the wine, obviously. But I can still applaud what they are trying to do.
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Re: Kudos to "Olive Garden"

by Sam Platt » Wed Dec 06, 2006 11:56 pm

The way I see it Olive Garden fills a niche. It's not fine dining and it's not billed as such. We do go there on occasion and the food is always quite serviceable for the price. They seem to be paying much more attention to wines lately. The OG servers now bring out a bottle of something when they greet you, and they invite you to take a taste. They also always suggest a wine to go with your dish. Now, the wines aren't 90 pointers, and most of the servers can't field even a rudimentary question about the wine, but they are up there swinginging the bat. I applaud them for their effort and I did appreciate the apparently sincere interest in the corked wine on my last visit. I wish them well and hope they are able win some coverts to our side, even if they do start them out with white zinfandel.
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