Darden Restaurants Inc. will debut online ordering this month at its Olive Garden restaurants and test web-based reservations and tabletop tablets this summer at LongHorn Steakhouse, the Orlando Sentinel has reported.

Olive Garden's nationwide rollout of online ordering should be complete by August, the report said, and tabletop tablets will be tested at the Italian concept later this year. The chain has 830 units in the United States and six in Canada.

Early in this fiscal year, before Orlando, Fla.-based Darden came under intense pressure from activist investors and made the decision to spin off or sell the 706-unit Red Lobster brand, executives said they were beefing up the company’s consumer-facing technologies. In discussing first-quarter earnings with analysts on Sept. 20, Clarence Otis Jr., Darden’s chairman and chief executive, said that while the company was making $50 million in cuts to its administrative expenses, it would not affect investments in categories like technology.

“We are investing in a number of things that we think we need to invest in to stay relevant to our guests as their lifestyles change,” Otis said. “We're continuing to invest in making our technology platform more robust, for example, so we can better engage with our customers from a digital perspective. It also sets up, we think, our opportunity to do a much more segmented, targeted, one-on-one marketing with our customers.”

Darden, for example, has amped up how it uses analytics to understand its customers and has added data mining and other tools to better predict customer behaviors.

"We process over a million transactions a day, so we were concerned about processing power, especially as we were trying to evolve from a rear-window view to a predictive capability," Patti Reilly White, Darden’s chief information officer, told Information Week in a story published Wednesday.

The rollout of online ordering at Olive Garden is based on a test last year in Orlando, the Sentinel said, which included car-side delivery of orders. However, that service is not expected to be included in the expanded rollout.

LongHorn Steakhouse will begin the web-based reservations test in June. Customers will be able to see wait times at individual restaurants and add their names to a list. After checking in with a host at the unit, they will be sent text messages when a table is open. Tablets with at-table payment options will also be tested at some LongHorn locations, which has 453 units in its system.

Casual-dining brands have been expanding their use of tablets this past year.

Chili’s Grill & Bar, the division of Dallas-based Brinker International, said last September that it would complete a rollout of tabletop tablets to all 823 U.S. company-owned restaurants by the middle of this year. Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, the division of DineEquity Inc., said in December it would roll out touch-screen tablets to its 1,865 U.S. restaurants this year. And Minneapolis, Minn.-based Buffalo Wild Wings. Inc. said in March that it would have tablet computers in 500 locations by the end of this year and in all of its more than 1,000 restaurants in North America by late 2015.

Darden has 2,190 restaurants, which in addition to its LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Olive Garden brands, includes The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, Eddie V’s and Yard House.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless