The paradox of Olive Garden
Following our series of blog posts about Applebee’s, there was a ton of community feedback not only about Applebee’s, but about many casual dining chains across the country. Given the tone of the Applebee’s posts, it is no surprise that many of the reader comments at the time were negative (the opposite seems to happen when I write about P.F. Chang’s, Disney, or other places that handle food allergies extremely well).
But beyond the reader comments on the blog itself were many on Facebook, some on Twitter, and even more on the message boards of other sites. In addition, I received a number of direct emails.
One email I received was from Michele (who requested I not use her last name). Michele is diligent about emailing restaurants regarding their allergen policies, specifically related to nuts and peanuts. She had just received a disappointing letter from Olive Garden that she wanted to share with me. I was initially hesitant to print this right on the back of the Applebee’s posts since I don’t want the AllergyEats Blog to become a mechanism of constant complaint and negativity. However, given that the content of this email is very significant for our community and is from Olive Garden itself, I decided to go ahead and post it now, in its entirety.
Thank you for taking the time to contact us at olivegarden.com
We recognize the challenges with dining out when an allergy must be considered. Unfortunately, we are unable to provide the information you requested regarding nuts or peanut oil as an ingredient at Olive Garden.
Identifying allergens is a complex process for restaurants as there may be minuscule amounts of ingredients our vendors may not list. As you know, peanuts have been hidden in pie crusts, gravies, chili, spaghetti, soups, and cheesecakes.
While none of our recipes include nuts or peanuts, we cannot say with complete accuracy that there are no nuts or possible cross introduction of nuts in our restaurants stemming from our vendors. Our current nutritional database does not include information to the level of detail required for your safety. We are unable to recommend any items with the confidence that we all need.
If Guest Relations can be of further assistance, please write us again through olivegarden.com or call us at 800-331-2729. We look forward to serving you with Hospitaliano at any of our Olive Garden restaurants.
[specific representative name removed]
Olive Garden Guest Relations
So many thoughts come into my mind as I read this – some from the letter itself and some from outside information.
1) Is it just me or does this read like a form letter trying to keep food allergic individuals out of the restaurant? For legal reasons?
2) Olive Garden is “unable to recommend any items with the confidence that we all need,” yet they offer a gluten-free menu. Again, it might just be me, but I think this is somewhat hypocritical. Either that or one of the following: a) they don’t consider gluten intolerance as significant as a food allergy, or b) as I said in point #1, they’d rather not serve individuals with special dietary needs, which might further suggest that the gluten-free menu is more of a “p.r. stunt,” for lack of a better phrase.
3) Credit Applebee’s for going through the rigorous process of finding out what the vendors were sending over. In my first live conversation with them, they told me it took a long time to put together the allergen list, primarily because the vendor ingredients were so difficult to guarantee.
4) Notwithstanding my credit to Applebee’s above, why do many other chains seem to be much more comfortable serving food-allergic guests? And as pointed out in the Applebee’s posts, this can’t be all talk because they are backed up by the AllergyEats allergy-friendliness ratings which are based on our entire community’s feedback.
5) While on the subject of the allergy-friendliness rating, Olive Garden has a decent 3.3. Not up there with the greats at 4.5+, but not at the horrendous levels of Applebee’s and some others at 2.5-. Given this feedback, I have to (for the third time, I know) wonder whether this letter is legalese for “We warned you! Don’t sue us if you get sick!”
Those of you who are regular readers of my posts know what comes now. I want to hear your feedback. While I’d like to know about your specific experiences with Olive Garden, I’d also like to know what you make of the paradoxes here. They can’t (or won’t) offer confidence in an email, but they encourage gluten-free individuals with a gf menu, all while maintaining an AllergyEats allergy-friendliness score that suggests mixed diner experiences. Help me make sense of this all.
So yes, please click Comments or Reply below and share your thoughts. Feel free to criticize my thoughts as well. All’s fair in the name of helping our community!
Speaking of which, please also take a moment to rate any recent restaurant experiences you’ve had at the core AllergyEats site. We’re building tremendous momentum lately (helped by some great media coverage, a handful of which is on the core site under “AllergyEats in the News”), which means we’re also building tremendous value for the benefit of our whole community. So please continue to contribute and spread the word.