In the 1970s, General Mills Restaurant, Inc., (GMRI) searched the United States for a full-service Italian restaurant concept that could be purchased and expanded nationwide. Not finding a likely candidate, GMRI put its own market research 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 tables to the color of the candle holders were market tested. The pilot restaurant, which opened in Orlando, Florida in 1982, 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.