Mr. Buettgen, 38, a veteran of Darden's former parent, General Mills, has steered the marketing team's strategy for the 465-unit restaurant chain from a product and promotional focus to a focus on the dining experience.
Following sales dips in the early '90s, the chain has posted an impressive 14 straight quarters of same-store sales increases, ending the last reported quarter with a 9.1% increase over the same previous year period.
Last year, Olive Garden rolled out several new initiatives designed to improve the guest experience, and started to tout them in ads.
One program introduced Italian wine service so customers can drink by the glass but pour their own from a bottle on the table. Another program was introduced to ensure the food is hot when it arrives. Supporting TV spots feature plates of steaming pasta.
Throughout the process, Mr. Buettgen has been working with Olive Garden's agency, Grey Advertising, New York, to move away from promotional ads to TV spots that highlight the chain's refurbished restaurants and upgraded food offerings.
A new tagline, "When you're here, you're family," Mr. Buettgen says, "sums up the way we want to treat our customers as well as the way we want our employees to be treated in our restaurants."
One tool, which was recently added, is an internal program called "hospitaliano."
"We've been able to find something through `hospitaliano' that is relevant to our guests and our employees," Mr. Buettgen says.
That relevance has translated into strong sales in the competitive casual dining market.