Olive Garden Turns to Tech for a Turnaround

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Olive Garden is ready to stop living in the past. The struggling chain of Italian casual restaurants is ready to incorporate online ordering and test tabletop tablets this year, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Trends haven't been working in favor of Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants (DRI) lately. It's been months since it announced plans to sell its rudderless Red Lobster concept or spin it off if it can't find a suitor. No one's biting on the line for the seafood chain. Olive Garden is holding up marginally better, but it too has posted negative store-level sales in recent quarters.

The Internet may not necessarily save Olive Garden, but it will at least give it a chance to remain relevant. Olive Garden will begin rolling out online ordering for takeout orders this month, but the process will drag out until August before the entire chain of 836 restaurants is on board. The more ambitious move will come later this year when it tests the potential of outfitting its tables with tablets for waiter-less ordering.

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Entree

Brinker International's (EAT) Chili's and DineEquity's (DIN) Applebee's turned heads late last year when they announced their commitments to breaking in tabletop tablets in 2014.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Applebee's has ordered 100,000 tablets that will be installed at every table of the casual dining chain by the end of the year. Customers will be able to browse the menu, order and swipe their credit cards to pay their bills. The restaurateur's CEO promised that this wasn't a labor play. It will still keep a wait staff to satisfy immediate needs and service for customers who prefer personal interaction. The company providing the technology to Applebee's points out that the average customer in a restaurant incorporating its touchscreen terminals spends more, tips more and leaves earlier.

Chili's announced in September that it would go with Ziosk -- the same company that will provide the tablets for Darden's Olive Garden test. The devices will allow customers to order drink refills and dessert and pay with credit cards. Will Olive Garden's tablets completely automate wait staff functions? Will they merely offer diversions in the form of games? Or are they just a way to order more of those tasty unlimited bread sticks? No matter how far Olive Garden goes, it can only help after a few quarters of declining traffic.

Order Up

Tablets are still relatively new for casual dining chains, but online ordering is something that's been around for years.

Olive Garden is certainly late to this trend despite having a healthy takeout business. The chain's latest TV commercial pitches a "buy one, take one" deal, where patrons can enjoy a meal at the restaurant and get a second complete meal to go for as little as $12.99 for the pairing. One can argue that the last thing that someone craves after eating a large Italian meal is a second bountiful Italian meal, but it speaks to the popularity of its to-go business.

Embracing online ordering at a time when Internet usage and smartphone adoption has gone mainstream can only help. Darden's struggling to turn Red Lobster and Olive Garden around, and those challenges already find it ready to move on when it comes to Red Lobster. Olive Garden has a lot to prove, and hopefully the tech update will breathe new life into this very challenging business.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

12 Ways to Save Money on Food
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Olive Garden Turns to Tech for a Turnaround

This advice applies to adults and kids alike. Plan out your shopping list before you head to the grocery store so you’re not tempted by impulse buys, and let any children along for the ride know that you plan on sticking with that list. Small expenditures add up to big money, so try to avoid giving in to any last-minute requests.

If your children continue to insist that you purchase their requested items, then ask them to bring their own piggy bank money. Remind your children they are only allowed to pick something they can afford. It's good practice for grown-up budgeting.

You might not have 20 hours a week to scour multiple publications for the best deals, but if you focus on searching for online coupons, you'll end up saving just as much. Search online for products with the word "coupon" afterward. For instance, if you're looking for Cascade dish soap, search for "Cascade dish soap coupons."

To make sure that you don't waste money on impulse buys, schedule your shopping around paydays. The day or day after you get paid should be your shopping day. Before you go shopping, make a list and make sure it has everything you'll need until the next shopping day on it. Now make a commitment to yourself that you will make what you're going to purchase last until the next shopping day.
Stocking your freezer with frozen meals can help you save money on lunch, since they cost just about $5 each. It can even be a healthier option because they help you practice portion control. Just make sure you're purchasing meals that have no preservatives, and watch out for sodium levels.
Don't waste your time making a sack lunch every day. Instead, prepare a week's worth of lunches on Sunday, and your body will thank you for the extra 10 to 30 minutes of sleep you'll gain each night. If you cook one big meal on Sunday, make sure it's easy to change up throughout the week. Chicken, rice and vegetables all cook quickly and taste great with different sauces and cheeses.
Most families throw away so much food on a weekly basis. A better idea is to turn your dinner leftovers into a lunchtime feast. Apps like BigOven help you use your leftovers to make yummy, new dishes. All you have to do is enter the ingredients you have, and the app will show you different recipe options for your leftovers. You'll save money using food that would have been thrown out.

If you know you have $400 to spend per month on your food budget, that's roughly $100 a week. Whether you shop once or twice per week or use cash or credit doesn't matter as long as you stay within your spending limits. Just be sure to only spend the amount you allotted per week.

Keep your shopping list in a set location so all members of the household can access it. Write estimated prices of the items you are going to buy next to each item on the checklist. It can serve a dual purpose as a price book you can use to guess how much you will spend.
If you've ordered from the kids menu at a restaurant recently, then you know how big the meals are – they're almost as big as meals for adults, and they can cost up to $10 each. If you have multiple children, an easy way to cut down on this expense is to have them share a meal. Not only does this lower the cost of feeding everyone, but it also cuts down on food waste.
Most stores are open late, and without the distraction of announcements, people and maybe even your kids, you can have your own Zen moment. When you are clearheaded, you're more likely to zone in on what you really need and leave out what you really don't. Plus, it's easier to give the cashier coupons without causing any delays for the people in line behind you.

We are a society consumed by all sorts of apps, but if you want to grocery shop, save money and still be lazy, let Favado, an app created by Savings.com, do the work for you. The app will tell you about items on sale from different stores, and if there is a store coupon or manufacturer coupon, it will also let you know that too. (Of course, you can just use it to scan the weekly ads to keep things simple.) And if you're already glued to your smartphone, it's easy to incorporate into your shopping routine.


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