Olive Garden: $100 for 7 weeks of pasta

Olive Garden is about to try a pretty outlandish gimmick to lure folks in the door: pasta up the kazoo.

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They're not calling it that, of course. But on Monday, the casual dining chain whose business has seriously softened in recent years, will announce plans for its first-ever "Never Ending Pasta Pass" -- which, for $100, gives the holder the right to consume all of the pasta, salad, bread and Coca-Cola branded soft drinks that they can stuff down for seven weeks.

But you may need to act fast. Only 1,000 of these pasta passes will be sold -- beginning Monday at 3 p.m. ET -- online via the Olive Garden web site. Nothing like being one of 1,000 VIP's who can gorge on pasta for 49 days in a row. The PR stunt piggybacks with the chain's annual "Never Ending Pasta Bowl" promo, Sept. 22 through Nov. 9., which lets folks eat all the pasta they want for $9.99.

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"What we're trying to do is get some attention," says Jay Spenchian, executive vice president of marketing. "It's sure to provoke a reaction."

There's been a recent rash of all-you-can eat promotions in casual dining. Little wonder. In a struggling industry, these promos tend to generate social media buzz and boost customer visits. In July, TGI Friday's rolled out an "Endless Appetizers" promotion that let folks chow down all the appetizers they wanted for $10. Red Lobster, the former sister company to Olive Garden, is in the midst of its "Endless Shrimp" fest, which fetches about $15.99, depending on location. And Outback currently has a $15.99 Steak and Unlimited Shrimp promo.

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Last year during its "Never Ending Pasta Bowl" promotion, Olive Garden served 13 million bowls, says Spenchian. "It's our most popular and most requested promotion," he says. And, he notes, the 800-store chain hopes to attract more attention to the promotion by tacking-on the $100 Never Ending Pasta Pass.

But wait, warns Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian and author of the book Fighting the Freshman Fifteen. Any promotion that stresses all-you-can-eat works contrary to the one of the most important aspects of the dining experience: remaining mindful of what you eat. "If the primary object is to get your money's worth, it has nothing to do with good nutrition," she says. Instead, she recommends, prepare some special pasta at home -- and save a lot of calories and money.

But Spenchian says this Olive Garden promotion isn't about gorging but about fun. "We're trying to make our fans feel like VIPs," he says. That's one reason that up to seven guests who eat with the pass-holder will receive freebie Coca-Cola branded drinks, he says.

There are some limits, however. For example, you're not supposed the share the pasta with others at the table. "Of course, if someone shares we do understand we're not policing the tables," he says.

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As for the $100 pass-holder who opts to eat every lunch and dinner at Olive Garden for seven weeks, well, Spenchian says that's no problem at all. "I'd love to see that," he says. "Especially if they bring four or five guests along."

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For those wondering about leftovers, yes, doggie bags are okay.

By Bruce Horovitz, USA Today