That's the beauty of the Darden Restaurants-owned chain that has wowed Wall Street with 44 straight quarters of same-store sales gains and average-unit volumes of $4.4 million. (In September, same-store sales were up 4%-5% mainly on traffic gains.) Its "idealized Italian meals" and homestyle settings, as it calls them, are what pack the parking lots nightly, despite competition on Restaurant Row . An ad campaign from Grey Worldwide, New York, reinforces the warm hospitality theme with the tag: "When you're here, you're family."
"Every member of the Olive Garden family is a brand steward," says 48-year-old John Caron, exec VP-marketing, and a 17-year veteran of Unilever. In April, the chain celebrated the fifth anniversary of its Culinary Institute of Tuscany where many of its menu items and wine selections are inspired, and it regularly sends managers and chefs for training. Two years ago, the chain retooled its menu to highlight regional Italian specialties, earning it the Nation's Restaurant News 2004 MenuMasters Best Menu Revamp award.