Hello shoppers...


If you want to enjoy authentic Italian food without not enjoying the price of airfare to Florence ($849 round-trip, with stops in Chicago and Munich), you can:

A) Visit John Pascuzzi's house, and pray it's not "Taco Night."

B) Pop the top on a can of Chef-Boy-R-Dee, put in The Godfather Trilogy DVD and dig in.

C) Eat at an Italian restaurant in Des Moines.

D) Fughetaboutit.

Those that picked "C," follow me. The rest of you may click here, and be amused by cats.  

There are many fine Italian eateries to choose from in our fair città. One of them is a small, intimate, friendly, family-owned cozy little neighborhood joint, tucked away in an off-the-beaten-path-hole-in-the-wall-in-back-of-somebody's-house: Olive Garden.

The OG story begins on the southwestern side of Italy in the early 1880's. There and then, a young boy named Enrico Palazzo spent his summers with his Grandma in Viareggio, a small town on Tuscany's western border, situated on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Young Enrico would sit quietly for hours on a stool in his Grandma Olive's kitchen, watching her cook, mesmerized and amazed by her ability to summon up Old World recipes from memory, recipes which had been told to her by her mamma and hers before that.

Whenever Grandma needed an onion, tomato, or fresh spice for a sauce, she'd tell young Enrico to go fetch it "out of Grandma Olive's garden." Enrico would enthusiastically oblige, running out the back door of her quaint cottage to the small garden behind it, basket in hand. There, he would search for the ripest, freshest plants he could find, pull them from the soil and pick them off the vine, place them in the basket, then return to his Grandma, who would chop up the fresh-picked ingredients and toss them into a large, heavy skillet, on top of which she would add others, stirring occasionally, until the heavenly aroma of the simmering sauce, wafted through the small kitchen.

Enrico would remember those days, and the recipes his Grandma Olive taught him, later in life. As he grew into a man, he began creating his Grandma's incredible dishes on his own, from memory, much to the delight of his family and friends. Word got out about Enrico's culinary prowess, and soon he became the toast of Tuscany, as one of the finest chef's the region had ever produced.

In 1923, Enrico Palazzo made his way to America, and New York City, where, with the help of friends, he opened the first Olive Garden - in loving memory of his Grandma.

Actually, I'm blowing fumo up your skirt.

"Enrico Palazzo" is Leslie Nielsen, "singing" the Star Bangled Banner in the movie Naked Gun. That's a pic of Marconi, who invented the radio, which tastes terrible. And Olive Garden was conceived by General Mills (maker of Jeno's Pizza Rolls, Lucky Charms and Fruit Roll-ups) which opened the first OG in Orlando, Florida in 1982 outside Disneyworld, under the name The Green Frog.

But that was pretty cool for a while, wasn't it!

Today, The Green Frog is the largest Italian restaurant chain in the U.S., boasting over 700 locations nationwide. Olive Garden's lone Des Moines crib is at 3600 Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, and is the focus of today's Secret Shopper review.

With dozens of other chain and mom and pop restaurants in the Metro that offer Italian cuisine, Olive Garden has some stiff competition.

Soooo how does any restaurant (or store of any kind) help differentiate itself from its competitors? Che è corretto, amiche mie: customero servicei!

In fact, General Mills thinks customer service is sooo important, they've stuck the idea right in Olive Garden's branding statement: "When you're here, you're family."

Familia? Cool fagioli! Sounds like we should expect a two-hour amore-fest of glad-handling and pampering and being spoiled by a swarming army of smiling, happy Olive Garden staff who can barely contain their desire to pinch our cheek, kiss our forehead and pull out our baby pictures! Unless they mean my family, which means ambivalent silence, an argument over who gets the last roll, and feeding Grandma's (gross!) Potato Stroganoff Hamburger Helper to Mitzi, our chihuahua, when 'Gams isn't looking. 

Let us plan on the first one!

So how will Olive Garden's customer service be judged? As always, it will be reviewed using the Pillars of Great Customer Service that I teach to over 1,000 employees in the Des Moines area each week, as part of The Buyosphere.

Do Olive Garden employees smile? Do they greet, with salutations and open-ended questions? Do they engage, professionally and personally? Do they thank? Does Olive Garden have a process by which they can follow up? It all sounds sooo easy. :)

I visited Olive Garden twice - once on a Monday, early afternoon, dressed like John(athan) Gotti; once on a Tuesday night, dressed like John(ie) Goodman.

       "Jonathan"                 "Jonnie"


The scoring for each visit goes a little something like this, paisan:


  Orribile - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.       

   Debole - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.       

   Dimenticabile - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.       

   Forte - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.       

   Stellare - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.    


An aside: I worked for over a year as a greeter/bus boy/customer problem solver for Rookies Sports Bar, at four of their locations. A typical five hour shift consisted of motivating/teaching/babysitting staff, calming down irate customers who asked for no ice and accidently got a cube, soaking my shirt sleeves in spilled Michelob Light, ranch dressing and ketchup, feeling my heart beating through my aching feet by hour 3 and rolling home by hour 5, smelling the way Jabba The Hut, looks.

To those who work in the restaurant biz, who think I don't "get" it - I get it.

Which brings us back to the question of the day: What will we get at Olive Garden, customer service-wise? Luciano Pavarotti, or Enrico Palazzo?

Let's stop singin it, and start bringin it.


Staff interaction/Jonathan    



What sounded like the silky-smooth vocals of Lena Horn, welcomed me through the doors of Olive Garden just before 2pm on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon.

Joann, the greeter, greeted me with a pleasant but smile-free "Hi...one?" I said yes and gave her my name, which she passed along to Deb, who then said "Right this way" while looking that way, and led me into the restaurant. "How are you?" she asked as we walked and she looked straight ahead. We approached a table with two chairs. She pointed and, as she walked and looked away, said, still sans smile, "Enjoy."

Nothing really wrong with how Joann and Deb did their thing. But how could it have been (W)righter?

First, smile, Joann - a big beautiful grin that immediately tells customers you enjoy working there, and they'll enjoy eating there. Also, don't jump right away into the left-brain "one?" details. That's what order takers do. Professionals hover a bit, and engage - like that customer is the only one they've had all day. Ask your patron how they're doing. Engage in some chit-chat. Knock down the walls that exist between people who have never met. You were busy, but you had time to spend 10 more seconds with me. Also, I gave you my name, and you gave it to Deb - now say it back to me. And Deb, you do the same. Otherwise, our name might as well be a randomly generated number at the DOT. Humanize. Personalize. Treat customers like family - like your marketing promises.

Deb, you were pleasant, but you talked to me without looking at me, and that makes your words feel less authentic. Plus, it's hard to tell someone to "enjoy" without smiling, and expect them to think you mean it.

Retail is show business. Employees are on stage. Take advantage of that spotlight, Joann and Deb, and give 'em a show - especially at the beginning!

I was sitting in a section with 8 tables and 3 booths. There were 15 customers in the section, who were being waited on by what appeared to be 3 servers.

One of them was Eric, who arrived 30 seconds after I did. He had a nice smile on his face, through which he said, "Hi, how are you today?" and meant it. He took my drink order, asked if I needed a few minutes, then returned a few minutes later, as promised, and asked me if I'd decided.

Eric listened to my order (smallest salad they've got, low-fat dressing, no cheese, no croutons - I have an upcoming cover shoot for Minor Blogger magazine) while staring straight ahead and not at me, the smile now gone from his face. I could tell he was listening, and processing, but it just doesn't feel like someone is really connecting with us unless they're looking us in the eye. Eric also didn't say thank you before he walked away, which he could have.

Great retail interaction is about a hundred little things: looking customers in the eye, smiling at them, engaging them, sharing a laugh with them, thanking them at every opportunity, all executed like notes of a concerto played by a symphony. Any one note doesn't mean that much. Collectively, when played exceptionally well, these small notes add up to a beautiful performance that brings the house down, creating an exceptional experience for the listener (customer). This is what creates customer loyalty, longevity and revenue for companies - who differentiate themselves from the competition.

While I waited for my salad, I watched other employees, close-up and at a distance.

Rory walked past my table several times. I made eye contact with him, to which he responded by looking down, and away, no smile. Karissa, same thing - she approached my table, made eye contact, then quickly looked away and never let a smile touch her face. Shannon walked to several tables with a nifty parmesan cheese grater, asking patrons if they wanted some, but doing so without letting the sides of her mouth curl upward even slightly. Remember, Shannon, it's BEHOLD! THE POWER OF CHEESE! Not (beholdthepowerofcheese). That's no gouda! 

Later, Shannon would smile - at Eric lol. Hey, where's mine! :) 

I watched two other employees pass through the section (didn't get their names) whose expressionless faces and body language didn't quite suggest boredom, but didn't immediately remind you of folks heading off to Carenevale di Venezia.  Another employee, who was busing tables, looked me square in the eye, twice, without even cracking a smile - and I was wearing a pink tie. I would have laughed.

I got up to use the bathroom and passed by Kendra, who flashed the slightest of smiles but said nothing. Later, she'd super-size it. Awesome! Now do that sooner, and more often, Kendra!

I suspect that if you asked each of these employees if they smile while they work, most of them would smile, and say yes. But the truth is that most of them didn't, and that most employees don't. Why? Because they're processing - thinking about what they're doing and how to do it. They're not unhappy (although there are certainly exceptions). They just have "think" face. And that's a look that no one would confuse with "happy" face.

This is the strongest point I can make about retail: customers look at the faces of employees for cues about how they're supposed to feel about shopping/eating inside those stores. If employees look happy, then we, as shoppers, figure, hey! It must be cool beans to be happy, too! Conversely, if we don't see a smile on employee pusses and a song in their hearts, we tend to follow suit. It makes sense - we mirror what we see/feel, as human beings. We go along to get along.

The difference between smiling employees, who appear happy, and those wearing no expression, who don't, is the difference between a $1,000 night and a $1,200 night. Small patates? Sure. But multiply 20% more taters over 365 days and now you're talking about some serious denaro.

Eric was money in the "quick, efficient service" bank as he brought my salad to the table.

"You didn't want cheese?" He remembered - nice job! I said no. He left, without smiling, or saying anything else.

In front of me was a salad bowl the size of a WWII army helmet. This was "the smallest salad" they had? It looked like what rabbits must eat on Thanksgiving.

Lettuce hope they serve something smaller.

Eric returned an appropriate amount of time later, to ask, "Is everything good?" through a good smile. As I began to respond, "Yes, thank you," he'd already started to turn towards another booth. Ouch.

Later, I watched Eric bring the check to a woman in a nearby booth. "I'll take care of that when you're ready," he told her, thoughtfully. She said "Thank you" to air - Eric had quickly turned and was long gone.

In the Marines, slow is fast. In other words, be diligent - don't rush. Same thing applies in retail. The time to make up time is not when you're engaging a customer. That's where employees should linger, extend their contact time. More time spent with customers = more revenue. Period.

Eric soon returned to my table, asked me if I wanted to take the remaining (1,236 pounds of) salad with me.

Nope - left my forklift at home. But thank you!

He asked the same question about what was left of my diet Coke, which I thought was very cool, and very thoughtful.

Eric brought my check, cashed me out, told me to keep the top copy, and to have a great afternoon. He also gave me this...

What a nice touch! How very thoughtful, Eric! Now do two things: Write "Jonnie" first, to personalize the message even more. And make sure you're smiling as much as the smiley face you wrote. :) And here's the 3rd and 4th thing of the two things: make sure you look your customers in the eye when you're talking to them, and always always always thank them after each encounter, to the point of being excessive. When done with charm, grace and flair, it will never seem so. 

You cannot kill them with kindness, and they'll love the fact that you tried.

And if you can't serve me a "small" salad, then tell me that you can't, because I might be offended that I ordered one, and yet still had to pay...

$8.65 lighter, and an entire head of lettuce and a signed Olive Garden card heavier, I walked past three employees at the greeting station who didn't greet, thank me for coming in, wish me a great day or say Arrivederci! as I left.

Secret Shopper visit #1 to Olive Garden was finito.


Staff interaction/Jonnie    



The next day (except it was night), your Unsecret Shopper was back at Olive Garden, around 6pm. There were 10 customers ahead of me, and 3 smiling greeters greeting those who came in.

One of them was Yolanda, who, with the nicest smile, said, "Hi! How many, sir?" to me. Just one little ole blogger, thank you. "And the name?" Jonnie. "It'll be 10 minutes, sir." Okay. How about for Jonnie?

You know the customer's name, Yolanda. That's because I just told you what it was. Now use it! It's especially effective at the very beginning, where the way you engage a customer, can set the tone for their entire dining experience. Personalize. Humanize. Energize. 

Another couple, who'd come in after me, came up to Yolanda. "Welcome to Olive Garden!" Yes, like that!! Hey...why didn't I get one of those, Yo?!

10 minutes later, my flying saucer-shaped doo-hickey started vibrating and blinking red - either there was customer service trouble downtown and I needed to get to the Shopper-mobile, or Alexis was ready to seat me.

"Right this way," Alexis said, without a smile, indicating the latter.

As Alexis and I walked towards my table, she turned and asked, "How are you today?" Nice job, Alexis! You looked me in the eye while talking to me - fantastic! Now add a smile, and it will make your job more fun and your customers more happy. Trust me on this one. :)

"Here you go," she said, as we approached the same table I'd been taken to the day before. This must be the spot for DWD (Dudes Without Dates). "Enjoy your meal," she said, pleasantly enough but smile-free.

"Joy" and meal" should not be said with the same facial expression I use to say "Celine Dion" and "kidney stone." Smile, Alexis. Seriously. I mean, un-seriously! :)

Within a minute, a woman approached.

"I'm Shavonne, I'll be your server,"  Shavonne said, pleasantly but, like Alexis, without a smile.

That was okay. But what's a better start?

"Hi, Welcome to Olive Garden! Thank you so much for coming out to see us tonight! What's your name? Jonnie? Jonnie, hi, I'm Shavonne, and I'm going to be taking care of you tonight."


Shavonne offered to pour me a sample of some wine, which I declined. (I'm a light-weight. One whiff of an empty beer can, and I'm three sheets to the wind.) I went with the diet Coke.

A few minutes later, still pleasant, still no smile, she returned with it.

"Need a few more minutes?" 

"I would like the smallest salad you have, the smallest, with low-fat dressing. No cheese, no croutons."

Shavonne very thoughtfully asked if I wanted breadsticks, instead of just assuming that I did. I passed - although I wanted her to bring me a truck-load full, with a half a truck a butta.

A few minutes later, she returned with enough salad to feed a family of four, inside a bowl big enough for them to swim in.

This would apparently be Olive Garden's $8.65 version of "your smallest salad."

"Would you like some cheese?" she asked, grater in hand, forgetting that I'd requested the formaggio-free version. The salad was also full of croutons. "Enjoy," she said, without showing any joie (It's French, roll with it) on her face, and left. 

No big *dealio. (*Ahhh...now that's Italian!) But combined with the wabbit-killa salad when all I wanted was a couple leafs, I was kinda sorta gettin the feelin that I wasn't being heard.

It takes a very large "great" experience (about the size of my salad, last joke) for us shoppers to not only remember it, but also to feel moved enough to want to tell our (Facebook/Twitter/Blog/Email/Text/Call/Smoke signal) friends about it.

Conversely, it takes only the slightest of employee slip-ups for a PO'd customer to go home, hop on the computer and start posting SOMEBODY AT BOB'S RAKE SHOP SOLD ME A RAKE THAT GAVE ME BLISTERS AND THEY SUK POST YOUR OWN BAD BOB'S RAKE EXPERIENCE AT WWW.BOBSRAKESHOPSUKS.COM!! blasts.

Nothing that Shavonne did was bad. There are just lots of opportunities for her to make it good, great, fantastic, colossal, STUPENDO! And STUPENDO is what will put more money in your pocket and more smiles on Atheena's face, Shavonne.

Speaking of which, Atheena, the manager on duty that night, stepped into my section and, with a warm smile, engaged some couples about how their meal was, how their night was going. She asked, and moved on, engaging but never intruding - a nice touch!

In-between fork-fulls, I noticed other employees' comings and goings.

Brian, another server in our section (who had recently been hired) was politely serving others but not showing as much brio as he could have. Kevin was also working in the area, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. In fact, Kevin's schlumped shoulders, shuffling gate and frown suggested someone who had just been told to slog through the two-part, 12,036 word Kum and Go secret shopper review and then write a book report, with footnotes.

Using my feet, I walked up to him and asked him where the bathroom was. Kevin took two steps, pointed and began describing where it was, towards the entrance - until we both spotted Atheena, off to the left, at which point Kevin took 10 more steps, around a corner and then pointed straight ahead at the nearby potty.

Good call, kid. :)

I also watched Kurt, a chef, bring out a beautiful bowl of pasta that he had, presumably, just created. Yet as Kurt placed it on the table in front of the smiling customer, he did so without the pride and joy you'd expect from someone who had not only just created a culinary masterpiece, but now had the pleasure of personally serving it to a hungry and grateful patron.

In fact, Kurt's unsmiling face and body language suggested his arms hurt from carrying a bowl that weighed as much as my s-


I also watched Beth, another server, walk through the section many times, smile-free. Waiting tables is hard work, for sure, and that's understood. The one time my glance caught hers, she looked down, and away. Understood II - that's how we tend to roll as human beings, when we look someone in the eye who we do not know.

That's the great part about smiling, saying "hi" and getting to know people, Beth. :)

It wasn't that Beth (who is a pharmacy student at Drake) or the other servers and employees looked unhappy. She just didn't look like someone who was really enjoying what she was doing. That's okay if you're shoveling hog flop (hogs do smile, but don't seem to care if we do) but not as effective if you're serving Five Cheese Ziti al Forno to people who expect you to be as happy to serve them food, as they are to eat it.

That changed later, when I engaged her. ("You look like someone I know. What's your name?") At that point, Beth's face lit up with the most beautiful ear-to-ear sorriso you've ever seen. Awesome, Beth! Now flash that search-light of a smile before a customer says a peep to you, and they'll fill your pill bottle-shaped piggy bank to the rim.

The customer service stud of the night - and of both visits - was Yancy.

I watched this joyful, happy, engaging, endearing breath of fresh air come bouncing into the section. (Your eyes couldn't help but be drawn to her). Each time, without fail, she'd be smiling, a twinkle in her eye - whether she was engaging a customer in banter, or slogging leftovers, or getting change, or cleaning. It didn't matter. Yancy simply had, and has, that indescribable, indefinable, undeniable talent that is soooo rare in the world of retail.

She's happy. :)

I'm not a betting man (read the Secret Shopper review of Prairie Meadows) but I'd wager that Yancy makes as much in tips as anyone who works at that Olive Garden. Just a guess. Other servers are doing a good job. Yancy left "good" in the parking lot. That girl's got it goin on.

I engaged Yancy (to see her name tag). She stopped, smiled, beamed, engaged, laughed, thanked me and told me to have a good night -like we'd been neighbors for 10 years, instead of people who'd just met.

You're a rock star, Yancy!

I'd worked my way through most of the lettuce when Shavonne returned.

"Would you like more salad?"

"No, I'm good."

"I'll bring the ticket for you."

That was fine. But it felt rushed. Lavonne could have asked me if I wanted something else, offered me more soda or simply let me be. Instead, it seemed like she wanted to turn the table. If true, that's understandable. Servers make their money by turning, churning and burning. 

One way to help avoid having a customer misunderstand or misinterpret or jump to conclusions is to smile more, engage more, use their name and get to know them, as a friend. What Shavonne did wasn't wrong - it just wasn't as (W)right as she had the ability to make it.

That's the wonderful thing about Shavonne and the rest of the Olive Garden staff that I saw - there is tremendous opportunity and upside for all of them.

Shavonne returned with the check, and I paid it; she thanked me and told me to have a good night, with the first sign of a smile I'd seen from her. See! There's that upside! :)

As I walked towards the doors, there was a crowd of 30-40 people around the entrance, waiting to be seated. Yolanda was still smiling, skillfully handling the overflow crowd. Another woman, Sierra, was leaning against the greeter's podium, yawning and fidgeting, like a bored kid who couldn't wait to go home.

Me first - and away I went.



The great news for Olive Garden?

1. They have Yancy.

2. They have a very hard working staff.

3. They have a beautiful restaurant.

4. They have a great location.

5. They have great food.

6. I'm sure they have other great things that I don't know about.

What I do know - based upon my two experiences - is that the customer service has some catching up to do. It's not bad, just inconsistent. It's also not great, just average - with occasional moments that dip below that. 

Italians (according to an Italian friend) believe there is no average. It's either buono, or el poopo.

They're (W)right as rain.

In this economy (as I say to trainees till they nod off), average customer service means loss of revenue. Shoppers today demand more, and know we can, because we have more choices - in this case, over 30 more Italian restaurants, plus Mexican, plus Chinese, plus burger joints, plus boiling a box of Barilla and soaking it with Ragu, plus going without and calling it good.

There is no more competitive category than food.

Toss in the powerful Olive Garden marketing machine, and the difference between the promise OG makes ("When you're here, you're family!") and the customer's reality, is the difference between thriving through economic downturns, and surviving through the good times.

My advice is to have every employee watch the wedding scene in The Godfather (with a few strategically placed edits), and take note of what great customer service is about. There is much food, much dancing, much celebrating, much music, much joy and much love.

Talk about "family"...

Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.       


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Phone: 515-480-4190 

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