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Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
By Bob Bradley

Why does Tony May look so uneasy? There are some truly great Italian restaurants in these United States, and if you had to choose just one to experience the best this cuisine has to offer, you might want to begin start at San Domenico in New York City - it doesn't get any better. And with all the success and all the accolades, Tony has that look of concern. Now keep in mind that Mr. May takes the Italian thing very seriously, and much of his culinary life has been devoted to elevating the image of Italian cuisine in America.

Thanks to a recent interview that appeared in Food Arts Magazine by Stephen Michaelides, I was able to discover the source of his apparent discomfort. It seems that Tony May, and others like him, are less than enthusiastic about what the chains are doing to his beloved Italian Cuisine, and that's putting it mildly. And keep in mind that so many in the independent community are absolutely certain that the chains are coming to their place for dinner and stealing portions of their concepts.

According to Michaelides, Mr. May acknowledges the trickling down of his influence and other Italian restaurants he respects, but what results is a tarnished copy, and while he'd like to change that, he admits it's futile. Tony insists that the chains should do Italian food correctly, and they are dealing with consumers who have a limited knowledge of Italian cuisine. Moreover, according to Mr. May, "Rather than go to the trouble of educating consumers, they are content to giving them something far removed from authentic contemporary Italian cuisine It's Italian food maintained at a level which Italians don't recognize, and that I believe is wrong."

Of course, Tony May is what one would characterize as a "purist". And when it comes to a discussion of purity in modern day America, one should not be too surprised at the apparent success of so much in the chain industry. This is not to suggest that what the chains are doing is somehow inherently wrong or evil, because call it what you will, they've got a lot of folks coming to dinner!

I opened a recent copy of Sports Illustrated and stared at a beautiful, full page, four-color ad featuring wine (not food) and the signature at the bottom was non-other than the Olive Garden. A full page in Sports Illustrated can take a hefty chunk out of any marketing budget, and I couldn't help but wonder, when was the last time that San Domenico, (or any independent restaurant) spent some $180,000 for a full page in any magazine.

Who are these people, and why are they talking about wine, and how can they afford this type of advertising in a weekly issue of an SI? The simple answer is that Olive Garden is a chain of some 459 (US) restaurants owned by the Darden Group, the largest casual dining company in the world. They also own the highly successful Red Lobster.and Bahama Breeze Restaurants, and with some 1100 individual locations, and some 115,000 employees, we're talking about a formidable force in the restaurant industry. Trust me when I tell you that they can easily afford the $180,000 for that little old ad in my weekly sports magazine, and they can easily afford all those television commercials that are so well done that even I'm tempted to have dinner in one of their restaurants.

And here's all you have to know...the Olive Garden has just concluded a partnership with an Italian, family-owned winery called Rocca delle Macie, operated by Sergio and Daniela Zingarelli. The partnership consists of two elements: Olive Garden Riserva di Fizzano, a restaurant specializing in Tuscan cuisine, and the newly created culinary school called the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where Olive Garden culinary teams will learn firsthand more about Italian cooking techniques, food, wine and culture.

According to Brad Blum, the president of Olive Garden, "Olive Garden is passionately committed to providing each of our guests with a genuine Italian dining experience and we draw from the heart of Italy in everything we do. "This partnership, which started out several years ago as a friendship and shared dream between myself, Daniela and Sergio, draws us even closer to the Italian culture, food and lifestyle that we celebrate at each of our Olive Garden restaurants." (So much for Tony May's worries about authenticity).

The bottom line is that Olive Garden, like so many of the more successful chains, is doing a masterful job at positioning their restaurants to the ever-growing market of people who are dining out more often. The Italy thing is a brilliant extension of their overall marketing presentation to attract more and more customers to their restaurants. And let's face it, they are offering something that totally separates themselves from the San Domenicos' of the world. You can get an ample serving of Spaghetti with Meat Sauce for seven dollars and ninety-five cents (toss in two additional bucks, and they'll add Italian sausages or meatballs).

We're really not talking about Italian vs. Italian - we're talking about apples and oranges. A meal at San Domenico has almost nothing to do with a meal at Olive Garden, nor should it. They both do what they do very well, and they cater to an entirely different audience.

This is also not to dismiss the impact of the chains on the independent restaurant community, because there is much to worry about. Having said that, let's return to the Food Arts article by Stephen Michaelides. He presents a simply awesome quote from Drew Nieporent which in my mind, tells the whole story..."You can't clone the individual talents of people. You can take an idea or a recipe, but you can't take somebody's soul; and that's what makes independents distinctive and successful."

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