The business professionals running Olive Garden understand that the best things in life are unlimited. The Italian-inspired restaurant chain is well known for its unlimited soup and salad deals and its never-ending pasta bowls. The all-you-can-eat item most famously associated with the brand are its breadsticks. With the purchase of any entree, your server will refill your bread basket upon request throughout your meal free of charge. In an age of rising menu prices, the deal remains one of the best in the chain restaurant landscape, but it does come with some unpublicized caveats.
The YouTube channel Weird Food History explored just how unlimited Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks are in a recent video. Like many major food companies, the chain has faced pressure from investors to cut operating costs in the past decade. The unlimited breadsticks were one expense that came under scrutiny in 2014.
In a 300-page document on the restaurant’s perceived failings, the hedge fund Starboard Value dedicated an entire section to the breadstick policy. While acknowledging that the deal attracted new customers when it initially launched, investors argued that Olive Garden’s reckless generosity had become bad for business. Instead of portioning out breadsticks based on party size, servers were guilty of overloading baskets. Food waste wasn’t the only problem this caused. According to Starboard Value, the breadsticks began to “deteriorate in quality” after sitting on the table for just seven minutes, so an overstuffed basket was bad news for everyone.
The complaints led to Olive Garden adopting a stricter approach to the famous deal. If you order unlimited breadsticks from the chain today, expect to get one piece per person, plus one complimentary breadstick in your first basket. That extra breadstick is meant to be a “conversation starter,” and Red Lobster (also owned by Darden Restaurants) follows the same policy with its cheddar bay biscuits. After the initial round, baskets come with one breadstick for each diner, and servers will only refill it if you ask.
Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks were threatened again in 2020, when the chain suspended them due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The deal is only available in person, so loyal customers who ordered takeout amidst restaurant closures were forced to settle for a limited portion of carbs. Fortunately the change was temporary, and Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks returned with the full in-person dining experience.
The company may be stingier about the amount of breadsticks you get per basket, but they haven’t backed down from their promise of unlimited servings. According to servers on Reddit, the only instance when customers are denied free refills is when they’re caught stuffing food into their bags for later. As long as you consume the breadsticks on the premises, the only limit is your own appetite.