Waiter, I’ll Have the Crowd-Pleaser

At Olive Garden restaurants, diners were casting a wary eye at the gnocchi.

Customers didn’t order the doughy potato pasta in a red wine marinara sauce, or in a Parmesan cream sauce. The dishes failed these field tests until chefs at the company’s Orlando, Fla., headquarters tried gnocchi in chicken soup, billed as a “traditional Italian dumpling.” Sales took off.

Ordering a potentially unfamiliar ingredient in soup is “less of a commitment,” says Julie Elkinton, senior vice president of culinary and beverage operations for Olive Garden, the largest of Darden Restaurants Inc.’s chains.

Casual-dining restaurants, the chains dotting the suburban landscape that serve $13 entrees, increasingly find themselves in a difficult spot—riding the fine line between the culinary advanced and the utterly familiar.

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