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Olive Garden to get a makeover

Chain to roll out Tuscan farmhouse look to more than half of its restaurants

Olive Garden said it is remodeling 400 of its more than 730 locations in an effort to reinforce its Italian heritage with consumers.

Called “Via Tuscany,” the new interior and exterior look draws its inspiration from a Tuscan farmhouse, Olive Garden said in a press release, and will feature upgraded seating and window treatments in the dining rooms and bar areas. Outside touches include new front doors, Tuscan stones, a brick arch, freshly painted walls and newly planted Cypress trees.

Heidi Schauer, a spokeswoman for parent company Darden Restaurants Inc., said in an e-mail Wednesday that the test of the new Via Tuscany look has been expanded to 30 restaurants in Texas.

The company originally said in a statement that the remodels would be completed during the next two years, but clarified later there was no official timeframe.

Drew Madsen, Darden’s president and chief operating officer, said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call March 25 that 35 of Olive Garden’s locations outside Texas have already been refurbished to include new design elements.

“We haven’t had them remodeled for a long time, but so far, the impact on brand perception and same-restaurant sales lift has been positive,” he said.

Olive Garden joins sister brands Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse in a getting a facelift. Red Lobster is in the midst of a multiyear makeover of its nearly 700 restaurants, a third of which are expected to feature the new “Bar Harbor” look by May. Meanwhile, the 347-unit LongHorn Steakhouse expects to complete its remodeling program by the first half of next year.

Several other chains also are devoting resources to toward remodeling at a time when unit expansion has slowed from the rapid rates seen before the recession. McCormick & Schmick’s recently said it would spend between $10 million and $15 million on remodeling the next two to three years, and quick-service players Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have ongoing reimaging programs.

Olive Garden’s Via Tuscany design will be the template for all new units. The chain said it eventually would remodel units in markets throughout the country, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Spokeswoman Schauer said the average remodel takes roughly four weeks to complete.

“The restaurants don’t close during the remodel,” she said. “The enhancements are made during our closing hours.”

Olive Garden generates more than $3 billion in annual sales. Orlando, Fla.-based Darden also owns the Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 concepts.

CLARIFICATION: Darden Restaurants Inc. originally stated in a press release Wednesday morning that as many as 400 Olive Garden restaurants would be remodeled through 2013. Darden's director of media relations, Rich Jeffers, later clarified that the company has no set timeline.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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