Olive Garden Pasta Pass

I ate at Olive Garden 25 times in 8 weeks.

You might be wondering: why did I do this, how could I afford it, did I get fat, if I am tired of pasta, or even if I am crazy? Keep reading for the answers as I attempt to explain my experience with the Olive Garden Pasta Pass.

The prized Olive Garden Pasta Pass in its ostentatious box

This post is not sponsored by Olive Garden, although that'd be nice. These are my ideas and don't reflect Darden Concepts, Inc. as a company.

What Is It?

What is this fancy Pasta Pass anyway?

This year, Olive Garden sold 24,000 Pasta Passes: 23,000 valid for eight weeks costing $100 and 1,000 valid for a full year costing $300. While the pass is valid, one can go to Olive Garden as many times as desired and order the Never Ending Pasta Bowl for free!

#pastapass

Last summer, I happened to stumble across a news article about the deal a day before the passes went on sale. After some quick math, it became obvious that it was a great offer, assuming I went more than ~6 times. Six times in eight weeks? Ha, I could go six times in ONE week!

Never Ending Pasta Bowl (NEPB)

The Pasta Pass is good for one thing and one thing only: one order of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl.

Menu for the Never Ending Pasta Bowl

As you can see, this entree costs $10.99 and includes unlimited breadsticks, unlimited soup or salad, and unlimited pasta. 252 total possible combinations exist that combine the different pasta types, sauces, and toppings. While the pasta and sauce are included in the $10.99, getting a topping will cost extra.

Dining Experience

What was my typical experience like?

While my pass was valid, from 9/24/18 to 11/18/2018, I was a student at UW-Madison. I lived downtown Madison in a cozy little apartment next to all the campus buildings. There are no Olive Gardens close to campus, a fact that I was well aware of when I bought the pass. Therefore, I needed to travel about 6 miles to get my Olive Garden fix…

I typically went in the evening, riding my moped across town for nearly 20 minutes until arriving at the restaurant. Even when the temperature dropped below 20°F, I still made the trek.

After 20 brutal minutes in the cold wind, bundled up me arrives at the promise land

After I took off all my gear from the moped journey, I went inside and asked for a table for one. At first, asking for a table for one felt pretty strange, but as the eight weeks progressed, I discovered that I didn’t really mind it. Plus, the staff started to recognize me and say “oh you again, just one tonight?”. It was like coming home!

Going nearly everyday really let me get a sense of the day-to-day trends at Olive Garden. For example, I saw which days were popular and which days no one ate there. I also started to notice who worked which days, and even made friends with a few of the servers.

Arriving just before sunset on a cold winter evening

When it was my turn to be served, a staff member walked me back to my table and sat me down. The server soon arrived and introduced themselves, asking for my beverage order. I always ordered at this time since I always knew what I wanted.

Me eating my free pasta at Olive Garden

My Typical Order

The overwhelming majority of the time, I got the same thing. I know it isn’t very exciting, but I just really liked it.

  • Never Ending Pasta Bowl with
    • Pasta: Angel Hair
    • Sauce: Traditional Meat Sauce
    • Topping: Crispy Shrimp Fritta
  • Salad
  • Breadsticks
  • Water with straw (sometimes Raspberry Lemonade)

Quality of Food

Olive Garden excels at cooking pasta. While pasta is fairly easy to make, Olive Garden hardly ever screws it up; it is a safe place to go for your pasta craving!

Breadsticks

The breadsticks seem much more buttery and unhealthy than they used to be, back in the day. At 140 calories a stick, the fatness really seems to start adding up after eating five or six… But boy are they good. After a few meals, I concluded that waiting until the salad came to start in on the breadsticks made the most sense as to not stuff myself before even starting.

Lovely breadsticks... <3

Salad

I usually ordered the unlimited house salad, which was always very tasty. My only complaint is that the lettuce wasn’t always uniform with respect to piece shape and size. Sometimes, huge chunks of thick lettuce stalks were in the salad bowl, which clearly didn’t seem right.

Soon after ordering, my salad and breadsticks were delivered to my table

One time, a few friends from the rowing team came to eat with me. One guy decided to take a big bite out of a banana pepper from the salad. It ended up exploding when he bit down, spraying pepper juices all over the table and on me. I smelled like peppers the rest of the night, but I’m still glad he came with.

Soup

Rarely did I stray from the classic Olive Garden salad, but when I did, I ordered the Chicken Gnocchi soup. This is a wonderful soup with rich flavors and a creamy base. Boy did it hit the spot!

Pasta

Finally, we come to the pasta. This part of the meal never disappointed me. My angel hair pasta noodles, with meat sauce and fried shrimp were always wonderful! The first serving of pasta is always huge, making it hard to finish after eating salad and breadsticks.

An order of angel hair pasta, with meat sauce and fried chicken strips

At first, I tried to get the most value out of the Pasta Pass as I could, so I ate all of the first round of pasta, then ordered a free refill. The refill wasn’t as big as the initial round, but still decent sized. All this food usually left me feeling like I had eaten too much. But, I was getting my money’s worth!!

After maybe half a dozen meals, I decided that I didn’t need to over eat and stuff myself. From this point forward, I usually never ordered seconds, and if I did, I got them to go for later meals.

After eating the first round, a smaller second round was sometimes ordered

Money Saved

Was It Even Worth It??

The most common question I get is: “Did you make back your money? Was it worth it?”

When people ask me this, the short answer is simply yes. For Pete’s sake, I went 25 times! Of course I made back my money. The question then transitions to trying to figure out how much I came out on top…

There are fundamentally two different ways of measuring my “profit” from all this:

  1. Did I get more than the initial cost of the Pasta Pass in free food?
  2. If I would have made pasta at home instead of going to Olive Garden, would I have spent more?

I think people naturally ask about the first one, but perhaps the more appropriate question is the second. I didn’t have to buy the Pasta Pass and go to Olive Garden all those times. Instead, I could have bought ingredients at the local grocery store and cooked equivalent meals at my apartment.

In the following sections I will investigate the two questions and show that, indeed, I came out on top in both.

My mouthwatering pasta meal ready to be devoured

Base Numbers

Before diving into the analysis, here are the base numbers and values.

NEPB Pasta Pass Cost

Olive Garden sold the eight week pasta pass for $100, so after tax, I ended up paying $108.25 to have the pass.

NEPB Base Price

Each order of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl costs $10.99. This only gets you the pasta and sauce, so toppings like meatballs or shrimp cost extra (up to $4.99 more). The tax rate in Wisconsin is 8.75%.

1. Eat more than $100 of free food?

Did I eat at Olive Garden and order enough free food to cover the initial Pasta Pass cost?

To figure this out, we simply need to add up the price of all the meals I ordered.

Date NEPB Total
9/24/18 $17.38
9/24/18 $17.38
9/25/18 $17.38
9/26/18 $17.38
9/27/18 $17.38
9/28/18 $17.38
9/29/18 $17.38
10/2/18 $17.38
10/3/18 $17.38
10/4/18 $17.38
10/8/18 $17.38
10/10/18 $17.38
10/16/18 $17.38
10/17/18 $17.38
10/23/18 $17.38
10/25/18 $17.38
10/29/18 $17.38
11/7/18 $17.38
11/8/18 $17.38
11/10/18 $17.38
11/10/18 $17.38
11/13/18 $17.38
11/16/18 $17.38
11/17/18 $17.38
11/18/18 $16.29
Total $433.37

If I would have paid for all the Never Ending Pasta Bowls that I ate, I would have spent $433.37. This is significantly over the $108.25 I paid initially… In other words, I profited $325.12!!

For almost every meal I got the most expensive topping: Crispy Shrimp Fritta for $4.99. This maximized my total profit, but also tasted very good!

Drinks and Tip?

This simple calculation doesn’t take into account the cost of drinks and all the tip I left, which were both paid out of pocket. On average per meal, I left $1.83 in tip and paid $0.94 for my drink. I drank mostly water, so this $0.94 is due to the occasional raspberry lemonade (and one beer).

If I add up all the cash I spent at the restaurant, this comes to $69.30. This amount should be directly subtracted from my total profit, bringing my profit down to $255.82. Still a lot of free money in the form of food!

In summary, over the course of eight weeks, Olive Garden gave me $255.82 worth of free food!

2. Would have spent more than $100 at grocery store?

The previous analysis is very nice, but it misses a critical detail: I didn’t have to eat at Olive Garden at all! I didn’t need to buy the Pasta Pass in the first place…

Instead, I could have shopped at my local grocery store for the equivalent food items: pasta, pasta sauce, shrimp, breadsticks, salad fixings, etc. I would have needed to buy supplies for 25 pasta meals. Since it is hard to estimate how much the food would have cost for one meal, I will do my analysis for various estimates.

Cost per meal Total at grocery store Profit
$2.00 $50.00 $127.55
$3.00 $75.00 $102.55
$4.00 $100.00 $77.55
$5.00 $125.00 $52.55
$6.00 $150.00 $27.55
$7.00 $175.00 $2.55
$7.10 $177.55 $0.00
$8.00 $200.00 -$22.45

The above table compares potential costs per meal ingredients at the grocery store to my net profit. It makes sense that the cheaper I could buy the ingredients at the store, the more profit I would make.

I will look at the $7.10 row for an example. On average for one meal: the pasta, pasta sauce, toppings, breadsticks, salad and drink cost $7.10 at the grocery store. This means that for 25 meals it would cost me $177.55 total at the grocery store. After 25 meals at Olive Garden, my total expenditure was also $177.55 (for initial Pasta Pass, tips and drinks). This means that I made no net profit.

So, the question is: can I buy all the ingredients and cook the equivalent meal at home for less than $7.10? I think yes. If I bought in bulk, I think I could reduce this cost to $5 per meal on average, bringing my actual profit to more than $50.

In summary, buying the Pasta Pass and eating at Olive Garden instead of going to the grocery store for eight weeks saved me more than $50.

An empty Olive Garden

Summary

What about all that traveling? Time and gas usage estimates?

All my previous analysis was strictly about money, but ignore the cost of traveling. Each round trip to Olive Garden put 12 miles on my moped and took nearly 40 minutes of my time. These are both costs that I would not have incurred had I eaten at home.

For 25 trips, the total time cost is about 1,000 minutes or almost 17 hours. To put that in perspective, I could have worked instead of riding my moped for those 17 hours. For a basic hourly job making $10/hr, I would have made $170!

In terms of gas cost, my moped is pretty efficient, averaging almost 50 miles per gallon. For the 25 trips, I traveled a total of 300 miles and burned about 6 gallons of gas. At $3 per gallon, this is almost $20 of gas!

Heading home at night from Olive Garden after a filling meal

Worth It?

After all of this, was is worth it? Would I buy this Pasta Pass again? Should have I gotten the full year pass?

Yes, I think it was worth it. I loved being able to not think about buying food for nearly two months. When I was hungry, I simply got on the moped and drove to Olive Garden! Some days I even went twice.

The staff began to recognize me, and a waitress even knew my order! She was my server probably 4 or 5 times.

But, I must say, I’m done with Olive Garden for a while. I simply don’t think my regular meal was worth nearly $18, so I really don’t want to go back and pay full price for any of their entrees. Olive Garden serves great food but at an absurd price. Bleh.

We’ll have to see if I buy the Pasta Pass again next year. Until then, I think I’ll stay away from Olive Garden. I’m all pastaed out. :)

Thanks, Olive Garden, for the memories!


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