Olive Garden will expand its Tastes of Italy small plates menu systemwide in early December, the company confirmed Monday.

The new offering features seven small plates items ranging from $4 to $4.50, according to Olive Garden spokeswoman Tara Gray.

The $4 items are: Parmesan Roasted Asparagus with balsamic glaze and parmesan dipping sauce; Pizza Fritta Napoli with fried pizza dough, alfredo sauce and a choice of five-cheese marinara, sun-dried tomato or meat sauce for dipping; Tuscan White Bean Hummus with toasted ciabatta bread; Tortelloni al Forno filled with cheese and prosciutto in a parmesan cream sauce; and Chicken Meatballs in a marina sauce.

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The two $4.50 items include the two Grilled Chicken Spiedini skewers with red wine or alfredo sauce and fried Crispy Risotto Bites in a marinara sauce.

The Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. division had been testing the small plates in several markets, including Chattanooga, Tenn.; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Portland, Ore.

Recent research has shown that smaller dishes can appeal to diners seeking lighter fare and to Millennials seeking variety.

“Small plates give consumers more options,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for the Chicago-based consultancy Technomic Inc. “It perhaps satisfies different occasions — occasions where consumers are not looking for a full meal, but are looking for a lighter meal.”

Technomic’s recent “Starters, Small Plates and Sides Consumer Trend Report” found about 41 percent of consumers shared small plates with others in their party.

Millennials were proportionately higher in the sharing category. While about 37 percent of all consumers said they were more likely to order small plates when dining with others in the survey, that number rose to 47 percent among Millennials.

“What we’ve learned from the research from Millennial consumers is that they really enjoy grazing,” Tristano said. “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.”

Increasingly, consumers are looking to try things “without having to invest in a full entrée,” he added.

Casual-dining chains have been thinking small for several years. Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory introduced a “Small Plates & Snacks” menu in 2009, and it now features about two dozen items. Huntington Beach, Calif.-based BJ’s Restaurants and Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen began offering lower-priced small-plate options in 2010. Carrolton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s introduced a small plates menu in April.

“The advantage of small plates to the operator is that you can generally see a premium price point with a lower food cost, which operationally can drive better bottom-line margins,” Tristano said.

Small plates also give operators some flexibility to be innovative, to try new spices and flavors, Tristano said. “If they are successful, it’s a good foundation for creating new entrees,” he said. “It is, to some extent, research and development for the restaurant.”

Olive Garden has more than 800 restaurants nationwide.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
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