In the 1970s
, General Mills Restaurant, Inc., (GMRI) searched the United
for a full-service Italian restaurant concept
that could be purchased and expanded nationwide
. Not finding a likely candidate, GMRI put its own market
and creative teams to work designing such a concept. (Developing a concept from the ground up, using consumer
research, was an untried strategy
for the restaurant industry at the time.) Everything from the contents of the menu
to the size of the table
s to the color
of the candle
holders were market tested. The pilot restaurant, which opened in Orlando
, was changed over a dozen times--the tomato sauce
alone was changed over 25 times, again due to consumer testing and research.
In 1986, the Olive Garden went from four restaurants to fourteen. In 1987, thirty-eight new restaurants were added to end the year with fifty-two restaurants. Averaging the addition of 50 units each year, the Olive Garden ended fiscal year 1993 with 400 restaurants in the US and Canada. Much of this rapid growth was due to GMRI's already existing training, market development, purchasing and payroll departments, and real estate. The Olive Garden currently has 459 units in the United States, 5 in Canada, and, believe it or not, one in Tuscany (Italy).
In June 1995, General Mills spun off its restaurant division. It became Darden Restaurants Inc., which currently operates both the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants.