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Olive Garden Debuts First Ever Burger: The Italiano

Olive Garden Debuts First Ever Burger: The Italiano
Image credit: Darden Restaurants Inc. via Bloomberg
3 min read
This story originally appeared on CNBC

Move over, Umami and Ramen Burger. There's a new burger in town.

As restaurants battle to lure diners amid intense competition, Olive Garden on Monday introduced its version of an American classic: the Italiano Burger. 

"As part of an ongoing brand transformation, Olive Garden is expanding the choice, variety and value we offer on our menu," said company spokeswoman Tara Gray. "We have a strong lunch business and are known for our popular soup, salad and breadsticks but felt we have an opportunity to enhance the variety of menu items we offer our guests at lunch."

At $9.99, the six-ounce burger is the chain's latest attempt to expand its menu and boost sales. The burger is topped with crispy Italian prosciutto; mozzarella cheese; arugula; tomatoes marinated in fresh basil, garlic and Italian spices; and a garlic aioli spread. It's served with parmesan-garlic fries and a choice of Olive Garden's unlimited soup or salad and breadsticks.

"While we found Olive Garden's new Italian burger and Parmesan garlic fries to be very flavorful (though a bit heavy on the garlic), priced locally at $9.99 we're not sure the price-value of the offering will drive much in the way of incremental sales," said Bob Derrington, senior restaurant analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

Initial reactions on Twitter following the introduction of the burger have been tepid so far.

"Olive Garden selling burgers. That's just blasphemy," Tweeted @ MatthewATMR.

"With a dramatic increase in fast-casual restaurant brands selling pasta [like Panera Bread and Noodles] in convenient neighborhood locations and at competitive prices, Olive Garden has continued to search for ways to bring in consumers to its Italian-themed restaurants, and its foray into burgers is not likely to be its last attempt to broaden its appeal," Derrington said. 

Restaurant visits have been trending down, with foot traffic declining an estimated 1.5 percent to 2 percent in the first three quarters of 2013. Olive Garden, part of theDarden Restaurant group, has been no exception, showing a 4 percent drop in same-store sales in its first quarter, which ended in August.

Darden shares are up nearly 17 percent this year, though. Competitors have also rallied, with Brinker International gaining 57 percent, Cheesecake Factory 42 percent and DineEquity 33 percent.

The restaurant outlook isn't looking rosy, either. Reuters recently reported that Americans plan to further cut back on eating out in 2014, according to consulting firm AlixPartners.

The top reason given is a desire to eat more healthfully.

Olive Garden also announced Monday an expansion of its healthier choices menu, with two new entrées at under 575 calories each: Baked tilapia with shrimp, and garlic rosemary chicken.

Related: Is the Year of the Bun Over? Wendy's Ends Pretzel Burger.

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