The Power Of Unending Pasta

There's fondness for a product, then there's genuine loyalty and outright obsession. When it comes to Olive Garden's annual Never Ending Pasta Pass sale, one is generally dealing among the ranks of the truly obsessed. Everyone likes Olive Garden breadsticks, but it takes a very specific type of fan to pay $300 to eat an unlimited number of them in a year.

Such is the wonder of the Never Ending Pasta Pass, Olive Garden's now five-year-old promotion that allows consumers the option of paying the scant price of $300 to enjoy as many pasta-related entrees as they can possibly stand over the next 365 days. In addition, should one fear that there is simply not enough variety in such a diet to satisfy even the most dyed-in-the-wool pasta lover, there are more than 100 possible combinations in the Never Ending Pasta Bowl to keep the process interesting.

This year's sale came with an unusual twist, however. The Never Ending Past Pass has generally been a limited-time-only sort of engagement, and customers could only treat themselves to an eight-week pasta binge at the Olive Garden. The promotion has been so overwhelmingly popular among enthusiasts and devotees that the powers that be at Darden — Olive Garden's parent firm — decided to celebrate its 23rd anniversary by giving select consumers the choice to celebrate with a bottomless bowl of past for the entire year.

For those less willing to truly reach out and touch their inner glutton, the eight-week pass rode again this year as well and retailed for the bargain price of $100. The average price of an item on the Never Ending Pasta Bowl menu is around $10.99 when one buys it as a one-off at the restaurant.

While one might observe that making the pass a worthwhile investment would require eating at Olive Garden an awful lot — more than once a week, as it turns out — this is not a problem for true super fans. Julia Laughlin is an Olive Garden enthusiast who was gifted a free seven-week pass after lavishly praising the restaurant on social media. She recently told Slate that had she paid for it, she would have gotten more than her money's worth.

“I'm not going to lie, I went every other day,” Laughlin said. “I would say if you get free pasta for a month, you want to get the most out of it that you can, [and] preferably go multiple times a day, every day. I mean it was a free pasta pass for a Never Ending Pasta Bowl, so you could get as much as you wanted. So, I just say, keep going until you can’t eat no more, [then] bring some home, so you don’t have to travel to Olive Garden every time you want Olive Garden pasta, because they will give you that.”

The competition for passes is tough, too. All 22,000 sold out in less than one second in 2017, and this year all 1,000 full-year passes and 23,000 eight-week passes were purchased in under two minutes. Many hopeful consumers walked away disappointed, and those who were most successful reported attacking the situation from multiple devices at once (like an iPad, smartphone and desktop).

It might be easy to write off an endless pasta bowl as the ultimate in cheap marketing ploys, destined to keep consumers watching the countdown clock on the Olive Garden website (yes, that exists), but Jennifer Arguello, executive vice president of marketing for Olive Garden, said it really it is so much more.

At its very best and most effective, the Never Ending Pasta Bowl represents an incredibly effective tool for building an entire social community around the Olive Garden experience. A lot of those pass members do, in fact, use their passes three times a day, Arguello noted. They are not kidding around about their pasta.

“Over the years of Pasta Pass, we’ve seen our passionate guests blog about their experiences, create matrices with the combinations they’ve tried and plan to try [and] break records with the amount of visits,” she said. “Our passionate Olive Garden fans have made the sale of our Never Ending Pasta Pass into an annual phenomenon.”



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.