One of my favorite oddball super geniuses, the French semiotician, Freudian psychoanalyst and insanely rich business consultant Clotaire Rapaille, is famous for hisobservation about Americans and cheese:
“In America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag.”
This sentiment says a lot about American food culture in general. Historically, we have liked our food safe, simple and consistent, above all things. We have generally been divorced from the growing and sourcing of our foods, and prefer processed foods that have been scientifically engineered to have addictive thresholds of taste.
But things are changing in America, and we have, in a sense, entered an era where we are ready for our cheese to be alive once again. It took us awhile, and necessitated the invention of the Internet, but the new, enlightened consumer is here to stay. Today’s consumers have a newfound willingness to understand what things really are, and a desire for authenticity in what we do – and what we eat. Just like we are starting to want our cheese to be cheese, we are also starting to want our Italian food to be Italian.
I started thinking about all of this when someone told me yesterday that Olive Garden is suffering. How perfect, I thought. A downfall of Olive Garden would be perfect evidence that there is a certain type of karma at work with today’s new enlightened consumers. This type of consumer has traits that are often attributed to millennials in the Power Points that companies go through behind the scenes, but I think that they have affected baby boomers too, or anyone who has figured out how to use the Internet. Here’s a short summary of the traits that apply here:
1. They use the Internet to spread and learn about companies’ reputations.
2. They are more acclimated to cultural diversity.
3. They desire authenticity, in their own cultures and in their experiences of others’.
4. They are easily bored and constantly want new stimulus. This translates to being relatively adventurous with food.
In my opinion, Olive Garden committed a few “sins” in the eyes of this type of consumer.
1. Olive Garden has come to be the butt of a joke in ‘foodie’ culture
Marilyn Hagerty’s review of Olive Garden was hilarious to people because no one takes Olive Garden seriously anymore, and it was funny to see someone doing that. My friends may eat there out of nostalgia every now and again, but make sure to let everyone know they are only eating there ironically. It’s associated with safe, fatty comfort food more than any real idea of what Italian people eat like.
2. Olive Garden simplifies another culture in a way that we are uncomfortable with.
My comic friend once pointed out that taking an Italian person to Olive Garden on a date to offer them their own cuisine would be just as stupid as taking a Brazilian person to the Rainforest Cafe. Enough said.
3. Olive Garden has bad karma.
They’re the first to admit that part of the reason their sales are down is because of how they reacted to Obamacare. To absorb the raised payroll taxes, they slashed many employees’ hours back to part-time, which ended up hurting their bottom line even more because it just made them look like jerks. Companies could get away with this type of thing 30 years ago, when the Internet did not quickly make harsh business moves spread across culture and end up on the Colbert Report.
They continue to embarrass themselves by blaming payroll taxes and negative media coverage for their loss of sales, rather than look to the way they are operating first and foremost. If they did, they might see that their negative reputation is keeping mindful customers at bay in the short term, and that their brand of food is doomed in the long run.
Americans are finally waking up, and that means a lot of things for businesses. For now, it means endless breadsticks just may not be enough.