6 PR Lessons From The Olive Garden Food Truck

Recently the Olive Garden restaurant unveiled an unlikely sampling initiative that PR agency folk will find either cool or cringe-worthy. The often-maligned (but also beloved) Olive Garden sent a food truck into Boston’s North End – a neighborhood synonymous with authentic Italian cuisine.

The Boston stop was the latest one in a sampling and PR campaign to celebrate the launch of the chain’s new Signature Breadstick Sandwiches. For sheer audacity, as well as some surprisingly favorable – or at least, fair –  publicity coverage in places you might not otherwise hear about an Olive Garden, we’re giving this a thumbs-up.

But there’s no doubt that the initiative was as bold as a spicy marinara. When might a move that’s sure to tempt critics or competitors actually be appropriate? Here are some lessons for determining whether such a calculated PR risk is in your future.

Know your audience.  The last time the Olive Garden garnered positive press with the charmingly viral Grand Forks Herald restaurant review, the haters hated, but Olive Garden fans stood loyally by their breadsticks. An avid North End restaurant-goer may not be its core customer, but there are plenty within of the Northeast media. It all goes to show: if your core audience is unshakable, don’t be afraid to shake up things in the press.

Test the waters. Any successful PR team has media contacts and other experts by whom they could run a bold idea. Soft soundings (or tastings) can help determine what kind of interest there would be and how many different ways a story might play out. Testing these outcomes helps you plan for contingencies as well as hone the story ahead of time.

Consider contingencies. When selling the audacious idea, plan for any possible outcome so all parties are prepared and any finger-pointing can be kept to a minimum. A plan “B” and “C” are also worth considering. On the ground, contingencies include planting audience “ringers” to ensure a robust crowd (and a few positive reviews), and lining up a friendly media contact for first crack at the story.

“Free” trumps all (or most.)  When you can supply your audience with free food, the gesture alone usually engenders a positive reaction. Free samples have a strong proven track record. Just ask Costco.

Have fun with it. The Olive Garden seems to have adopted a (calculated?) lassez-faire attitude about criticism of their offering, conducting very “in-your-face” food demos on sacred ground for traditional Italian foodies and laughing along with the crowd. We think it’s much easier to be favorably inclined to a group that’s having fun rather than treating the whole experience like a traditional boring press conference. And we all know social media favors the fun.

Learn and adapt. As with many PR events, it is often wise to sell in a bold idea as a pilot. This way, the team learns what works and what can be improved as they prepare to roll out nationally or regionally.

Chains Serve Up Savvy Response To Drink Mix-Ups

Tempest in a sippy cup? Some might think so. But as one PR expert put it,”the story was too good.” When a Michigan Applebee’s restaurant mistakenly served a pre-mixed margarita to a 15-month-old boy, the chain found itself battling a flood of critical coverage and a reputation threat.

The media and blogosphere was stirred up even more after a similar incident at a Florida Olive Garden in which a toddler was given alcoholic sangria instead of juice. And it’s not the first time alcohol has mistakenly ended up in a child’s cup.

A careful reading of news accounts of the Applebee’s incident raises some doubts about what really happened. Reports that the toddler was rushed to the hospital with a blood alcohol level of .10 have been contradicted by later accounts. In the wake of the (inevitable) lawsuit brought by the child’s parents, it crossed some minds that the incident might have been a hoax. It wouldn’t be the first time a customer tried to cash in by slapping a big-name chain with a juicy damages claim. (Remember the Wendy’s finger-in-the-chili case?)

But there’s no way to know what really happened, and if you’re Applebee’s, you have no choice but to respond with utmost seriousness. And it did, releasing a statement about its investigation, an apology, and a social media campaign right out of the rapid-response crisis playbook making use of Facebook, Twitter, and its corporate website. Most importantly, it announced that its policy for all restaurants would be to pour beverages directly from single-serve containers at the table. Likewise, Olive Garden pledged to make its sangria only when ordered, rather than stored premixed.

The response of each chain was supported by a statement from the National Restaurant Association that expressed industry concern, while trying to put the incidents in perspective as one (or two) in a million. And that’s what those trade association dues are for, folks.

Fortunately, the toddler is fine. But as an example of crisis handling, the entire incident is a lesson in just how quickly the story can get away from you. And that’s sobering.