Olive Garden's Winning Wine Ways

Image: VIBE / Getty

Olive Garden has long been known as one of the country's most important wine sellers. Last year alone, the 850-unit Italian-themed chain offered more than 17 million wine samples to guests. But even such traditionally popular wine destinations as Olive Garden need fine-tuning from time to time, and their latest set of tweaks and twists won them this year’s VIBE Vista award for Best Wine Program.

Constant upgrading and attention to detail is important for the chain, since more than 55 percent of their overall beverage alcohol sales are derived from wine. Even though wine was already the chain’s most well-developed beverage alcohol category, recent efforts at refreshing the program caused wine sales to grow at 6.6 percent over the course of 2017, and several new options were added that created incremental marginal growth.

For example, the Ziosk wine tablet, available at tables, has been developed as an in-house tool that allows guests to browse wine info and consider food and wine pairing suggestions. The devices also help guests become familiar and comfortable with the traditional Italian concept that wine is food and no meal complete without it. Even though wine has become an increasingly popular beverage in this country, there are still many geographical areas in which Olive Garden operates where wine drinking, especially with weekday lunches and dinners, can use regular massaging.

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Olive Garden guests have long been offered wine as an introduction to the concept. These days, legal guests can sample three wines per visit to encourage exploration. Guests also receive a seasonally-adjusted food and wine pairing menu along with a list of pairings laid out on the core menu. The Primo Pairings (changed as many as eight times a year) are featured on the Olive Garden’s core list and on their Ziosk tablet app, and are promoted and supported on their website and through emails.

Flexibility in service formats has helped as well. In addition to sample portions and 6-ounce standard by-the-glass servings, quartino pours are offered, expanding customer ordering options with a 9-ounce portion. Because this pour is 50 percent larger than a single glass order, the quartino option sets the stage for incremental sales when two glasses might be considered too much by a customer.

In addition to the pairings, Olive Garden responded to a frequent request from guests who sought to purchase the chain’s signature wine glasses by launching a Valentine’s Day giveaway of the glasses.

Of course, the chain has long been known for partnering with vintners to create proprietary wine made specifically for them. Recently, the chain created a more Millennial-friendly, fruit-forward Tuscan red blend with their long time Tuscan winery partner Rocca delle Maciè, who for more than 20 years has been a wine and culinary partner of the chain.

Wine cocktails and Moscato have both trended in the past few years, so Moscato-based drinks, as well as Moscato flights and Prosecco promotions, have helped drive sales. And as it has for some time, the chain offers glasses of wine at half price when guests are waiting to be seated.

Training and keeping server staff involved has been key to keeping wine sales high. A sales-based competition sends several servers to Italy each year; team members are required to take part in extensive wine training through a variety of material including brochures, wine cards, manuals. Pre-shift meetings play an important role, as does online video training and instruction through back-of-house-only Ziosk tablet programs.