The Math Behind Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl

How much pasta can you really eat in one sitting at Olive Garden?

People have made a pretty big fuss about Olive Garden's returned Never Ending Pasta Bowl, the all-you-can-eat pasta deal that allows you to order a potentially wild amount of food in one sitting. The promotion starts at $13.99; you first pick a type of pasta: fettuccine, spaghetti, angel hair, or rigatoni. Then you choose one of five sauces: Alfredo, marinara, meat sauce, creamy mushroom, or five cheese marinara. It's up to you if you want to add a protein (fried chicken strips, meatballs, or Italian sausage), but it's is an upcharge of another $4.99 per serving. In years past, the promotion cost $10.99, so its price has increased nearly 30% for this reincarnation. At the current price, is it still a good deal?

A stroll through the Olive Garden menu

Let me say upfront that this price isn't terrible. The sibling of Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl, the Create Your Own Pasta option, is a permanent menu fixture and usually costs $12.99-$13.99 depending on location. It starts with the same base deal, which means you get to pick a pasta shape and a sauce, plus add meat for an additional $4-$5. (The meat options here include shrimp and grilled chicken, in addition to the options listed above.) The Create Your Own has the added benefit of including unlimited soup or salad and breadsticks. But after one large bowl of pasta, that's it. You're cut off. No more pasta.

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The Never Ending Pasta, by contrast, starts you off with soup or salad and breadsticks (which are also never ending), then a large bowl of pasta, then allows you to order unlimited additional helpings of pasta as you go along. A writer from Insider visited Olive Garden recently for the promotion and found that subsequent bowls were approximately half portions of what had initially been served. Even so, her appetite didn't quite allow her to eat much more past the first bowl, and she had to call it quits pretty quickly. It's important to note that she opted for a chicken gnocchi soup as opposed to salad at the beginning of the meal, a choice she admitted was probably too heavy a complement to the pasta. But hey, we've all got different appetites—maybe the soup wouldn't slow you down the same way.

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Is unlimited pasta at Olive Garden a good deal?

The Never Ending Pasta Bowl must be considered in the context of Olive Garden's full menu. When compared to the restaurant's other dinner offerings, this promotion is objectively a good deal—from Olive Garden's perspective as much as our own.

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Again, the base price of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl is $13.99. The next cheapest item on the menu is the Fettuccine Alfredo at $16.99, and most other entrees hover between $17.99 (Eggplant Parmigiana) and $22.79 (Chicken Tortellini Alfredo). These are Chicago-area prices for full-sized entrees; your mileage may vary. But either way, you're paying several dollars less for the promise of potentially much more pasta.

Emphasis on "potentially." The Never Ending Pasta Bowl is a true eater's game. If you're able to kill two additional half-portions of pasta on top of your original bowl—in addition to the soup or salad you started with, and breadsticks—you'll have essentially gotten two Create Your Own Pasta orders down the hatch, meaning you'd have consumed about roughly $26 worth of Olive Garden's food for the price of $13.99. So if you can extend yourself past your first helping of pasta, you've already gotten some extra value from your Never Ending Pasta Bowl purchase past the Create Your Own Pasta option.

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But that's assuming a lot. Consuming two consecutive helpings of Olive Garden pasta is not for everyone; to do so, you might need to pass up the soup/salad and breadsticks, which for some patrons is the highlight of the meal. And in case you thought you could pick at all this pasta at a slow and steady pace in the comfort of your own home, think again: The Never Ending Pasta Bowl is a dine-in-only deal, not available for carry-out or delivery, so you have to be sitting in the Olive Garden dining room for one unbroken marathon pasta session to take advantage of this deal. The order also cannot be split among two or more diners, meaning any amount of pasta you finish as part of the promotion will be yours alone to bear.

And what if you add meat? That's an additional $4.99, and an extra 130-480 additional calories per serving. (Calories are whatever, but let's just use them as a shorthand marker of how filling a dish can be.) That means you're paying more for a dish you're less likely to enjoy multiple servings of. At that point, you could just as easily opt for the Create Your Own option and you unlock two additional protein options for your pasta. Plus your selections might neutralize the potential savings: the spaghetti-and-meatballs Never Ending Pasta Bowl costs $17.99, whereas that same dish a la cart in the entree menu costs $17.98. For the extra penny, you'd better hope you've got room for an extra serving.

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How to get the most out of Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl

Here's a scenario: Go with the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, choose the salad, and don't touch any of the breadsticks when they arrive. You can then eat your pasta and greens, request the first pasta refill, and get that entire additional half-portion wrapped as leftovers—plus you get to take home all the remaining breadsticks, too. This approach allows you to take the most stuff home for the promotional price.

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Or, you could just order what you want, eat as much of it as you want, and walk away—it's pretty much all the same, from an economical perspective. Either way, you're taking advantage of a promotion that knocks a few bucks off your total meal. For its part, Olive Garden knows the comparatively lower price tag is as enticing as the promise of unlimited entrees, and executives are equally aware that it's nearly a statistical impossibility that enough diners have the capability to put down enough pasta to render the promotion unprofitable (especially now that the price of the deal has been raised by $3 across the board). We get more than our fill of arguably Italian fare, and Olive Garden gets us all in the door. It's as close to a win-win as restaurant dining ever gets.

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