PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The Olive Garden is now an open-floored, art-strewn replica of a Panera Bread (PNRA - Get Report) location instead of a muted, grapevine-laden replica of a Tuscan eatery.
This is Darden Restaurants' (DRI - Get Report) big plan for saving what is now its flagship chain: Stripping the faux-Italian elements, speeding up service, adding online ordering and swapping out its old logo for one that looks as if it was stolen from a short-lived mid-2000s cupcake boutique. The "Italian Restaurant" is now an "Italian Kitchen" as Darden attempts to convince customers that Olive Garden isn't the '90s strip mall parking lot casual dining establishment they remember.
This assumes that any of the above changes -- the chain's first aesthetic tweaks in 15 years -- were what was plaguing Olive Garden or Darden. Unfortunately, restaurant industry market research group NPD Group notes that casual dining has been losing customers steadily for the last five years. Since 2009 casual dining traffic has dropped 2% each year, taking roughly 7.1 million visits off the table during that span. Olive Garden's old "When You're Here, You're Family" slogan was turned into an outright lie as families with children made 1 billion fewer visits to U.S. restaurants over the past six years, compared to 306 million fewer visits by adult-only parties.
As of February, visits to casual dining establishments like Olive Garden are at a six-year low. Those visits dropped another 2% in the first quarter of 2014 despite casual dining restaurants slashing prices on their food routinely since the economic downturn. In the past six years, big casual dining chains relied on their promotional offers -- including 2-for-$20 meals -- so heavily that they accounted for 29% of all visits in 2013. That's nearly a third of customers who ate at places like Olive Garden simply because they were ridiculously cheap.