Hint: It's not bottomless salad or breadsticks.

By Phil Wahba
Updated May 24, 2017
Photo Courtesy: Getty Images / Bloomberg / Daniel Acker

It turns out lower-calorie dishes can also be good for a restaurant’s sales.

Olive Garden’s top selling dish became shrimp scampi this month, supplanting long time incumbent chicken Alfredo, a company executive told Bloomberg News this week.

The shrimp scampi has 500 calories, or a count barely more than a third that of the cheese and oil laden chicken Alfredo, but customers are taking to it: the Darden Restaurants Italian dining chain’s same-store sales rose 1.4% last quarter – the 10th straight quarterly increase, and one well above the 0.4% Wall Street was expecting according to estimates tallied by Consensus Metrix. The results continue a turnaround for a brand that was in turmoil only two years ago. Olive Garden’s turnaround strategy has included online ordering, faster lunch, training waiters to give advice on wine pairings.

The rise of shrimp scampi stems from a major overhaul to Olive Garden’s menu earlier this year as it sought to focus on lighter dishes that don’t induce a food coma. But that is not at the cost of taste, an executive told Bloomberg. “We started talking about the flavors first and the taste first,” said Jennifer Arguello, Olive Garden’s vice president of brand marketing. To be sure, Olive Garden has not abandoned its richer far: it still offers customers the chance to pay $100 and get unlimited pasta for seven weeks.

Earlier this week, Darden, which also owns the LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille chains, said it would buy Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen for $780 million.

Olive Garden, Darden’s flagship brand, helped fuel results that led to the company’s largest share gain in three years on Tuesday, when shares rose as much as 9% and hit an all-time high.

It is a striking turn of events for a company that only three years ago was in the midst of a bitter board fight. Activist investor Starboard Value waged a proxy war that led to the ousting of every director on its board. Starboard even went as far as make suggestions for how Olive Garden should prepare its iconic breadsticks.