Small plates to join Olive Garden's never-ending bowls

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Should you want to super-size your meal (and boost your social status in the process), plenty of American restaurant chains would be more than happy to have you dine with them. Olive Garden, for one, is currently in the middle of a "Never Ending Pasta Bowl" promotion. According to the chain's Twitter feed, it has served more than 5.3 million bowls of "unlimited" pasta with soup and salad for $9.99 since Aug. 10.

The Italian-themed chain is known for this all-you-can-eat, stuff-yourself-with-carbs approach to dining. But the appeal may be waning, especially among milennials who are increasingly choosing fast casual chains like Chipotle over sit-down restaurants like Olive Garden.

But Olive Garden is going to try to win them back. This week, the chain announced it will begin offering its Tastes of Italy small plates menu at all of its more than 800 restaurants in early December. Some of the small plates, like the fried pizza dough topped with alfredo sauce, look a lot like the appetizers the chain already serves.

But Olive Garden insists they're something new.

"We believe 'Tastes of Italy' Small Plates will create new dining occasions and reach new guests," Tara Gray, a spokeswoman for Darden, Olive Garden's parent company, tells The Salt in an email. "During our tests, we've seen millennial guests enjoying a combination of small plates as a new meal occasion between lunch and dinner."

Small plates, or tapas, are a fixture of Spanish and other European and Asian cuisines. But increasingly American chains are using the tapa menu to attract new customers. Earlier this year, TGI Fridays added a "Taste & Share" menu designed for groups who want to split and sample lots of dishes.

This tracks with industry research. "What we've learned from the research from millennial consumers is that they really enjoy grazing," Darren Tristano, executive vice president for the Chicago-based consultancy Technomic Inc, told Nation's Restaurant News. "They are really looking for destinations where they can find more shareable, smaller plates that they can graze on as they look for more social and interactive experiences."

Olive Garden also seems to assume that small plates will work because this new client base may be too busy to eat a full meal. An Olive Garden general manager in Texas told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that "it's easier for the younger crowd to text and check their phones while munching hand-held bites."

Other food companies are downsizing their offerings, too. As Allison Aubrey reported in 2012, Mars is slimming all of its its chocolate bars down to the 250-calorie mark by the end of this year.

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