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Will tapas bring millennials to Olive Garden?
The Italian-ish chain hopes small plates will win over the sought-after demographic
 
Nothing says "millennial" more than cheesy Tortelloni tapas.
Nothing says "millennial" more than cheesy Tortelloni tapas. (Facebook/Olive Garden Italian Restaurant)

Olive Garden, known across America for its unlimited bread sticks and never-ending bowls of pasta, is now experimenting with smaller portions.

Six months ago, Olive Garden's parent company Darden Restaurants cooked up a set of "tapas" to release in select test markets like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Grand Rapids, Mich. After trying out some of the dishes earlier this year, the company says it plans to make a selection of small plates part of its permanent menu in December.

The restaurant has announced that parmesan asparagus and grilled chicken will join the roster, and that it will audition garlic hummus, chicken meatballs, and cheesy Tortelloni for permanent positions as well. They will go for $4 a pop.

The change is all part of a push to attract the millennial crowd — the sought-after generation of twenty-somethings, who usually eschew chain restaurants, says Bloomberg. Traditionally a restaurant for families and boomers, Olive Garden has seen sales drop off since the recession, when people started eating at home to save dough.

The tapas are "expanding the way people think about Olive Garden," Jay Spenchian, executive vice president of marketing, told Bloomberg.

So will Olive Garden be able to attract millennials with these shrunken plates?

It certainly won't be the only one trying to woo that crowd, says Bloomberg.

Applebee’s has introduced late-night specials such as half-price appetizers and girls’ night out to attract younger customers. Its Club Bee’s locations stay open until 2 a.m. and sell sangria and bahama mamas to the party crowd. [Bloomberg]

Alexander Abad-Santos in The Atlantic Wire says the problem is more that tapas lost their cool factor about a decade ago:

Olive Garden's introduction of tapas comes a bit late. Back in 2003, a writer for LA Weekly rhapsodized how "along with the small plate, there comes a certain freedom." But then the Great Recession [happened], and some people realized that tapas were just an excuse for charge a lot of money for not a lot of food... By the beginning of the new decade, years before the higher-ups at Olive Garden decided to shrink their portions, the tapas craze was starting to subside. [The Atlantic Wire]

But others are less dubious about the chain's ability to please the youngsters. Charisma Madarang at Food Beast says, "Personally, as a 20-something, I'm all for change. Just don't get rid of the breadsticks, Olive Garden. If that happens, I'll quit you."

 
Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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