Olive Garden's plunge in popularity speaks to our changing tastes

What do the Orlando Magic and Olive Garden have in common?

A serious case of burnout.

Once the Italian Stallion of casual dining and Orlando's sweetheart brand, Olive Garden is now as much of a punch line as one of the NBA's worst teams.

On an episode of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" last month, host Peter Sagal suggested that if Olive Garden commercials were aired in Mexico, potential illegal immigrants might find the U.S. a less attractive destination.

"That is the worst place," comedian Brian Babylon said about Olive Garden. "But you know what, it's because I'm not in Tuscany, bro, and I know it. ... You're not tricking me with the wallpaper."

And that was mild compared with the flurry of LOLs that rained down on the Darden chain a year ago when a review of its newest restaurant in North Dakota went viral.

The earnest appraisal of Olive Garden and its "long, warm" breadsticks by octogenarian Marilyn Hagerty of the Grand Forks Herald was just too much for the food snobs to resist.

Darden must know it's really in trouble, though, because it's not just the über-gourmets who are taking shots at Olive Garden.

Shirley Land wrote in an email that a lunch outing at Olive Garden featured a menu "loaded with fat and salt, and over priced, even the pasta. We finally settled on their soup & salad combo with garlic breadsticks, and barely choked it down."

Land is 67 and lives in The Villages. She's not a foodie, just an average consumer who started to become more health-conscious once she noticed the toll salt and fat were taking on her and her husband's health.

"This shift is widespread, believe me, and often a topic of conversation," she said. "Now that restaurants must post their nutritional facts, most of our friends are horrified to learn a cup of soup contains a day's worth of sodium."

(Actually, a cup of Olive Garden's minestrone soup contains 70 percent of the amount of sodium an adult should eat in a day.)

Land's disappointment is a sign that Olive Garden's slipping sales aren't a problem to be blamed only on the chain's tired décor — the company announced last week it would begin to modernize the look — or rising gas prices (executives bellyache that consumers have less to spend on dining out).

Olive Garden's fall from the casual-dining pedestal symbolizes much more: a rebellion by the masses.

An aversion to bland food packed with salt and fat is spreading from the foodie elites to the hoi polloi.

We live in a world where corporate-health-insurance plans have people doing everything from wearing pedometers to talking with health coaches.

Gyms such as Crossfit are popping up faster than zits on a teenager's forehead. I counted 20 Crossfit locations in Central Florida, which means people from Lake Mary to Hunter's Creek are listening to the sermons of fitness gurus who preach the benefits of a "paleo" diet.

Crossfit endorses a "paleo" lifestyle, which means shunning all grains, dairy and sugar — in other words, the primary food groups of restaurants such as Olive Garden.

That's too extreme for my taste — I take cream and sugar in my coffee — and probably for a lot of other people, but when the hottest fad is giving up grains, it's not good for the place known for the never-ending pasta bowl.

And even those of us who aren't interested in deprivation are far more aware than we used to be about processed foods and nutrition.

CHICAGO

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