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Weapon in proxy war: Unlimited pasta at Darden’s Olive Garden

September 8, 2014, 5:55 PM UTC
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Olive Garden is pulling out all the stops to get diners to come back to its restaurants and lift its embattled parent company Darden Restaurants (DRI) at a time it is embroiled in a nasty proxy war.

In June, after reporting a 3.4% in comparable restaurant sales last fiscal year, Darden laid out a plan to re-invigorate its flagship Italian food chain. The strategy includes online ordering, faster lunch, training waiters to give advice on wine pairings.

On Monday, the chain went further, announcing its “Never Ending Pasta Pass,” that allows what it calls its “pasta super fans” to have unlimited pasta, pasta toppings such as chicken and shrimp fritta, and Coca-Cola soft drinks soft drinks (KO) between Sept. 22 through Nov. 9, for $100. It is only selling 1,000 such passes.

“What we’re trying to do is get some attention,” Jay Spenchian, Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing, told USA Today.

Olive Garden could use all the help it can get. Its same-restaurant sales declined again last quarter (even though they rose for the month of August) and fewer diners come into its restaurants, according to preliminary quarterly results published last week. (Full results are coming out on Friday.)

Since selling off Red Lobster earlier this year, Darden is even more reliant on Olive Garden, all the more given that Darden is fighting efforts by activist investor Starboard Value, which holds 8.8% of shares, to overthrow the entire 12-director Darden board with a slate of its own.

Last week, Darden offered Starboard four director slots subject to a shareholder vote, up from an earlier offer of three, and to replace four other board members at its shareholder meeting next month.

Darden executives must be hoping “Never Ending Pasta” will replace “Never Ending Boardroom Drama.”