Column: Please don’t mention Olive Garden

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Will there ever be an Olive Garden in Berrien County?

This is a question many have asked over the years and continue to ask this business reporter whenever a new development begins. Hence the meaning behind this column.

The answer to this is, probably not. And yet, any time a store closes or a building is on the cusp of a renovation, my email is flooded with this very question.

For those who don’t know (or haven’t bothered to read my story), The Herald-Palladium reported on the recent construction by the Secretary of State’s Office in Benton Township. The Orchards Park Shopping Center began its expansion by adding on a few store fronts to its existing buildings.

There are still mounds of dirt being pushed to make way for an expanded parking lot, but the project is expected to bring more business to the retail hub of the Twin Cities area.

With the stores not even built yet, here’s the conversation I had the other day concerning the expansion.

Stranger No.1: What’s going on near Wings Etc.?

Me: Oh, the Orchards Park Shopping Center is adding a few storefronts.

Stranger No. 1: Cool. Any chance one of those store will be an Olive Garden?

Me: Probably not.

Stranger No. 2: Really? Well, at least there might be one at 5 O’Clock.

When I began working here at the paper, one of the first stories I wrote was about the 5 O’Clock Sports Bar & Restaurant closing in May 2015. The general manager at the time was Michael Wittlieff, who now works for LECO Corp.

While many in the community spoke of the possibility of an Olive Garden opening up along the Red Arrow Highway corridor, Wittlieff has repeatedly said those rumors were untrue. In fact, Wittlieff doesn’t know where the rumors began.

It seems as though those hopes for never-ending bread sticks and unlimited soup were dashed away when the former sports bar was sold last month to a gentleman from Indiana, who plans to build a car care center.

In truth, the spot might have worked out well for the Italian restaurant.

I discovered this though research of my own. I was curious about the possibility of an Olive Garden opening here after so many of my co-workers kept asking me in a joking manner.

After a handful calls and emails, I was put in touch with Jessica Dinon. She works in media relations for Olive Garden, a division of Darden Restaurants Inc.

Darden Restaurants owns other stores, such as LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Yard House. Until 2014, the multi-brand restaurant operator owned Red Lobster. With more than 800 Olive Garden locations in the United States, the closest ones to this region are in Indiana – Michigan City and Mishawaka.

Dinon said they don’t discuss or share specifics on how they choose the locations of future sites, but she did give me a quote for my column.

“We’re always looking at any potential sites and pass along any feedback we hear from any guests to the appropriate real estate teams.”

Luckily, I was able to get some insight into how locations are spotted.

Amid my attempted calls in getting in touch with Dinon, I stumbled across a friendly operator and explained my story. Before transferring me again to Dinon’s ever-expanding voicemail, she divulged that Olive Garden doesn’t license its stores to franchise owners in the U.S.

Instead, Darden Restaurants buys land – rather large quantities of property – to develop for a restaurant, and potentially other stores that can operate on the same piece of land.

Because of this it becomes a harder chance to see Olive Garden opening in Berrien County.

But again, that’s why many people pegged an Olive Garden for the prime 5 O’Clock real estate along Red Arrow Highway, which is near the I-94 exit in Stevensville and across the road from Meijer.

It also likely means the new development by the Secretary of State’s Office won’t get an Olive Garden because the land is owned by another developer.

So now, hopefully, any rumors or questions about Olive Garden can be put to bed because I’ve exhausted all options on the story. That, and I’m more of a Chick-fil-A kind of guy.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2017)

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