If you’re not familiar, Olive Garden has an annual sale of a very limited number of “Never Ending” Pasta Passes. For a ridiculously low price of $100, you can use the pass for eight weeks to get unlimited pasta bowls, which come with unlimited soup or salad, plus your choice of several types of pasta, sauce, and protein. There’s also a year-long version for $300.
This article documents the process of winning my pass and my journal entries for the entire year documenting my experience, my expectations, and reality.
How I Obtained A Rare Commodity
The first year I attempted to buy one, I failed since they sold out within a few seconds, which I expected. What I didn’t expect was losing patience waiting for the countdown, watching a YouTube video, getting distracted, and missing the release by two minutes.
When I posted on Facebook that I was bummed I missed it, someone commented saying you can make pasta yourself for cheaper. That is true, but you may not get the quality that they get it and the convenience of not having to cook it yourself, which saves time.
The second year I tried, I wasn’t expecting to win. I was skeptical if it was even possible for a human because I assumed people with clicking software participated.
I had a chrome extension ready that would auto fill my credit card info. I knew better than to get distracted this time, especially since they only offered a couple hundred of the year-long editions for the entire world. I prioritized the annual edition purchase button.
The moment the countdown ended, I clicked rapidly like an e-sports gamer — and got another tab opened up that said it had sold out. I continued to click the buy button, opening up many more tabs, hoping that maybe there was a mistake. But it looks like I had missed it.
For some reason, one of the tabs suddenly loaded an Add to Cart page, and I used my Auto fill extension to fill out and hit the purchase button excitedly — but the page wouldn’t load to the purchase confirmation page. It stood stuck there with a pop up box that gave a vague message telling me that there should be one purchase per customer. I was confused what was happening, and concluded that I missed it.
Fast forward a week, and I get an email saying my Annual Pasta Pass will be mailed to me. I was beyond excited! Olive Garden’s site probably couldn’t handle the traffic and glitched out, preventing me from seeing the confirmation page. If you’re skeptical that a normal human without software can’t get a pass, I’m living proof you can.
Now, here are my journal entries about the pass for the whole year.
Two Weeks into using the Pasta Pass
It’s been two weeks since I’ve opened and used the pasta pass. I found out your full name is bound to the card, so there’s no chance of re-selling it [update: I noticed some people will scratch out the name and sell it on Ebay for $1,000. Is that worth it and legal? I don’t think it’s worth it]. I was thinking about doing that for the money, but this is great since I want to use it.
I’ve been going three to four times a week. I’m already starting to get sick of pasta, despite all the possible combinations, which I didn’t expect to happen so soon.
At the end of the second week when I was leaving the restaurant, when a female server said, “Back again?” in a seemingly annoyed tone. She’d only seen and served me once before, but maybe the servers talked amongst each other (or likely, it was just my own insecurity of going so often in my head. Later on, I discovered there were people who went twice a day for a couple months with the pass). Before I processed it and asked her if she was displeased, she was gone, probably to service tables.
The Math of Pasta Passes
When I opened the email, I noticed a message that said, “We suggest leaving a gratuity for excellent service, as gratuity is not included with your Annual Pasta Pass.”
While the pass is still a great deal, I forgot to factor in the cost of tips, probably like most people. If you do the math without the tips, your cost of each meal becomes less the more often you go, hitting a point of rapidly diminishing returns after going three times a week. When you add in tips, that leaves a minimum cost of $3 to $4, unless you’re a cheap tipper or you lower the tip percentage by skipping the protein.
This minimum cost can’t be reduced or removed by going more often. It’s still a valuable deal, but the gratuity prevents you from paying almost nothing per meal by going as frequently as possible. So it’s not “free.” If your goal is to save a massive amount of money off premium meals you’d eat all the time anyways, it’s a great deal.
The pasta pass card is built to pay for your entire bowl, plus protein, cost when you hand it to them. On your receipt, you’ll get special Pasta Pass information showing how all your total has been deducted, with a thank you message, saying that if you want to leave a gratuity, ask for another receipt. In that way, it makes it seem like gratuities are optional. The first time I tried it out, I felt bad and asked for a second receipt to leave a tip.
A regular priced Never Ending Pasta Bowl is $11.99. Protein prices range from $3 to $6 depending on which you get. I learned the hard way that your Pasta Pass won’t cover any extra protein you order with the initial bowl. You have to order protein and/or more pasta one a time by asking for a free refill (which is in a smaller bowl than the first one).
When I was informed of this technicality, I ended up paying $9 extra for the additional protein and gratuity in the first bowl. It doesn’t make too much sense since you’re getting the same thing when you ask for a refill, but maybe it’s because the portion sizes are bigger initially.
Given my cheap Asian upbringing, I had an urge to argue and get that money back, but I felt bad because I already got such a good deal and felt I should always tip. Based on my research online, servers make very low base salaries at Olive Garden ($3 or $5 an hour), and the rest comes from tips. Granted, one table of two can easily stack up a $50 order, which is a $9 tip, and sometimes, they have several tables an hour, but sometimes, it’s quieter and they need tips.
One Month and a Half In
I’m surprised to say that I am tired of the pasta bowl. It taste greats and yes, there are over 100 combinations, but once you’ve tried all the different protein, you’re pretty familiar with each protein no matter which type of pasta or sauce it goes on. The same goes for the sauce and the pasta types.
I have lowered the frequency I go to three or four times a week. I thought that I would hit this point much later in the year. Yet it’s starting to look like I’m starting to go only to save money, not so much for the taste.
The bread sticks and the salad or soup option are great for the first couple weeks. But after a while, you can only eat so much bread, and the bread gets old.
I am still very appreciative for this opportunity. I’ve been trying new combinations of pasta all the time to switch it up. That said, I am health conscious. Therefore, I usually stick to salad over soup and the healthy pasta sauces and pastas, which limit my options.
December 10th, 2018 – Three Months In
My frequency of visits has tapered down to one to times a week since around mid-November. This drop so quickly in the year of the free pasta pass is astounding for me as a cheap Asian because I often do everything possible to get the best bargains on everything I can — even if it means eating pasta I am tired of 7 days a week, for lunch and dinner.
But it turns out despite my personality, I can’t stand eating the same cuisine over and over again. I go when I can tolerate it. The 100+ combinations aren’t as different as you think. Once you’ve tried all the proteins, they starting tasting the same. Having grilled chicken instead of fried shrimp on a different type of pasta doesn’t make too much of a difference. (Also, I wish grilled shrimp was an option; you only get breaded shrimp. Although, if I’m very very lucky, sometimes, a server is doesn’t know that and gives me the grilled.)
My servers have all generally been friendly. There have been occasional small blips of service, but I am patient, and I have my phone to occupy me, so it hasn’t been an issue. The wait time to prepare a dish can extend to 15 to 20 minutes during dinner. And there were a many times that servers have gotten my order wrong, but I’ll let it slide.
Part of me was paranoid and scared that the servers would hate me because of my pass since I’d be there all the time. I figured it was possible that they would be mad at me for getting so much food without having to pay. In reality, they have all generally being nice to me. Plus, it just doesn’t make sense why they’d be mad — I’m just another customer.
Going back to breaking away from my cheapness, I have almost always tipped even when I have had opportunities to walk away without tipping because of my conscience. Although money is tight, I kept having thoughts about doing the right thing ring in my head while I’m eating. I did research and found out that Olive Garden servers make most of their money through tips. Sometimes, it is long or they are hustling and I feel bad not leaving a tip, even though it is optional and I know the servers will be warm and friendly even if I don’t leave it too. Often, I’ll go out of my way to grab a server and ask him or her to charge a penny on my bill so I can leave a tip.
The tip doesn’t have to be for $5 as I last calculated. many servers don’t tack on the charge for the additional protein for refills so the total cost only comes out to the never ending pasta pass bill, which is about $13. Therefore, a standard tip can range from a $1.50 to $3. I’m going to aim for three times a week has my quota to reduce the front and cost of the pasta pass, which will make my front-end fee per meal equal to $2. so if I add in my average tip amount, the cost of a standard pasta meal for me is around $4 to $5, which is good.
The final observation I’ve made going to Olive Garden so frequently is that when I come for dinner, I hear servers singing happy birthday to a guest almost every other visit. Most people seem to only go to Olive Garden on their birthday for the free birthday dessert.
January 29, 2019
The frequency that I go to Olive Garden has decreased to one or two times a week. I’ve started switching up the combinations I get outside of what I deem healthy to keep it fresh. I had Alfredo sauce for the first time.
I found out that my Olive Garden has an average of four stars with over 1,500 ratings. Despite a non-5-star average rating, I have found the hosts and waiters/waitresses friendly. Sure, sometimes they are slow to give me my food, but I’m patient and understanding because I realize that it’s often very crowded, and it takes time to get all the orders in. I used to work in the food and dining so I can relate.
I also have found myself always tipping even though there are many situations where I could get away without tipping. I often run into a new waitress or host who has never served me before and who charges my pasta pass and gives me back the zero dollars receipt and strides away, not expecting a tip. But I feel like it is the right thing to do since they make most of their money from tips. Perhaps, that goodwill has somehow come back to me and my experience at the restaurant is better because of it. Or maybe my perspective is less critical than the average reviewer.
I sometimes dine in during ghost hours when few people are there, and that’s when I feel especially bad because there is no one else for them to get a tip off of. If the service is bad or if something else bothers me or if the waiter doesn’t give a crap, have I walked away without giving a tip? Yes.
I am still grateful for this pasta pass even though I’m not going as frequently enough that I’ll get my moneys worth as people would expect.
I just can’t imagine eating here for lunch and dinner seven days a week. I would get so sick of the food.
Another tactic that has helped the experience is that I have been proactive in getting the refill order in when I placed the first order. That way, I will have to wait less time because they are already cooking the refill. I always start by asking politely for permission to get the refill order in with the main order. So far, I haven’t had a problem and if I do, I am prepared to explain that I always finish my first order and have a room in my stomach for a refill.
Another great thing about my local Olive Garden are the managers. A manager always has to manually check my pasta pass card before I get a receipt. I never talk to the manager usually but I sometimes see him or her go to the cashier to sign off. I have never had a problem with the manager and some small part of me was scared that the manager would have some grudge against me for freeloading. But there has never been a problem, and they always seem to walk up to the register and sign off without any sign of disgruntled manner. In fact, I recently forgot my pasta pass at the restaurant and when I called in, I was told in a pleasant tone by one manager that she had stored it securely in her safe for me to pick it up if I could show valid ID. When I picked it up, she handed it to me the pass with a smile. I am leaving a five star review.
July 10th, 2019
I go maybe once or twice a week, twice if I can stomach it, and three times on rare occasion if I really feel a pull from my wallet to save money.
It’s surprising because I’m cheap and do all sorts of thrifty stuff like cut out coupons for fast food and drive 30 miles for a discount on shoes. But no matter how thrifty I am, I guess I’m still an American who prefers convenience and luxury. I just can’t be bothered to eat the same type of food every day, even if it’s on discount.
I’ve started to try many more variations of the pasta to spice it up, even the unhealthy combinations with pesto sauce and Alfredo. And that’s even though earlier, I told you that I would avoid them because I value my health and want to stick to the low-calorie options. But my need for variation has over exceeded that.
This has been a surprising experience because I expected to stay true to eating here at least four or five times a week or maybe even just three times a week. The waiters have joked on occasion that I would get sick of it, one of them even suggesting I take a whole month off so I can get reacquainted with it. I actually did take a good two weeks off since I was traveling abroad, but when I came back, I was still just as sick of it.
The pass is bound to my name, though I still wonder if maybe I could’ve been allowed to dine in with a friend and share my bowls with them as I ordered more. I probably could’ve but maybe not. I’m sure the waiter wouldn’t like that once he or she spotted it. I saw a few passes on eBay were they merely scratched out their own names and try to sell it for two times the price they paid. That is stooping a bit too far, and I’m sure the staff would find that suspect, but hey, I guess it works since people are buying these on Ebay.
I’ve learned a couple small cool facts about Olive Garden in my time here. One is that you’ll almost always have a new waiter you’ve never seen before. I guess there’s a lot of turnover or just a lot of part-time staff workers. Arguably, this is a good opportunity to go without tipping the waiter since you always see a new face. But they’re always so friendly and I’d feel bad, so I’m not going to.
I also learned that a lot of families go here, and many of the children can sing the Olive Garden version of happy birthday by memory. I don’t always hear someone celebrating a birthday party here anymore. But it used to happen every visit. So I think people go here often for family occasions and birthdays.
Finally, I learned that Zuppa Toscana is my favorite soup, because it’s tasty and has meats and potatoes. I don’t think it’s good for me since it’s packed with calories. But it does have good protein amounts and it’s so tasty. The salad, although free, gets pretty old quickly. For people new to Olive Garden, they’re blown away by the size of the salad and that it’s free. But when you look at the contents, it’s mainly just tomatoes, croutons, onion, lettuce, and some balsamic sauce. That gets pretty old pretty quickly even though it comes in the massive bowl. Very recently, I’ve been asking for a tiny dipping bowl of olive oil, which has helped spice up my meals so they don’t get boring and because I’ve read that it’s healthy and useful for longevity.
I try to step into the restaurant with patience and kindness. Sometimes, they’re packed to the brim (even during non rush hours). I’m prepared to spend two hours there, and I use the Wi-Fi, which isn’t fast, to entertain myself and get things done while I wait. To get over the fact that it sometimes takes a while to get the food cooked and delivered, I asked for my refill order of my pasta while I get my first pasta delivered, that way they can start preparing my next refill while I’m eating my current dish. This move shaves at least ten minutes off my wait time.
I usually get through three dishes, sometimes two and half. I’m known for being a huge eater wherever I go, so much so that even strangers will comment on how much I can eat but I guess it’s not that much in the grand scheme of things since I’ve never gone beyond three bowls of pasta there.
At this point, I don’t know if I even want to try to get another pasta pass next year. If I do, maybe I’ll intentionally aim for the one month one since I’m so sick of it. I’m not trying to speak bad of Olive Garden, since I love the experience, but it gets old. I would love to see an All Access menu pass of some sort to everything on their menu or one where I can get a bunch of different variations of the dishes, not just pasta. Even if it is just pasta, I would love to have different variations of what I see on their standard menu, like cheese-filled pasta, salmon, and even dessert options. That way, I won’t get sick of it. Frankly, the pasta choices are a meager portion of their entire menu.
This is it. I can’t believe it’s already been a year.
For the last couple months, I’ve been going about once a week. On days where I really feel like I can save money and can withstand eating more pasta, I will go twice a week.
There’s only a couple weeks left before my pasta pass ends. I’ve been going about twice a week just to get the most out of it before it’s gone forever.
I realize I missed my chance to see if I could grab next year’s pasta pass, but I’m content with that. As you can see, I am all pasta’ed out. I heard this year, they released like 20 lifetime pasta passes. That is all fine again, but it may be more appealing than it actually is a reality. At this point, I’ve branched out to moderately unhealthy variations of pasta (hello five cheese marina!) just to keep switching it up so I don’t get too tired of it.
I learned a lot of small things during this journey. It seems that less people go here for their birthdays in the summer because I haven’t heard a happy birthday Olive Garden edition song in a while. I also notice that although there are regular waiters and waitresses I see all the time, most of the people waiting tables I haven’t seen before. That leads me to believe that there are a ton of part-timers.
I’ve started to tip better than I normally do to give a final farewell. They have usually been friendly and cordial to me despite being busy, so I can’t help but to tip extra. What helps is to be patient. I come into the restaurant expecting to spend 1 to 2 hours there. So when a waitress apologizes for taking 20 minutes to get to me, I’m not perturbed. I think that makes them happier, and it also disrespects how hectic it can be. If you come into this restaurants with the same attitude that some of the drivers I’ve seen on the road with road rage and impatience, you’re not going to have a good time here.
I think my dream for an Olive Garden pass would be to have a pass that allows me to choose most of the items on the menu plus dessert and the whole thing’s free — that’s my dream at least. That way, I could just flash the pass and have access to so much variety that it would take at least three years for me to get bored of it. The pass can include or exclude drinks because I’m assuming that’s where Olive Garden makes most of their money and since I rarely drink alcohol anyways — but there’s some really cool drinks there, non-alcoholic and alcoholic.
Do I recommend an Olive Garden pasta pass? Will I attempt to get one again one day? Yes and maybe. Especially for anyone who goes to Olive Garden anyways all the time, you’re going to save a lot of money. For someone was trying to live a healthy life for cut food expenses to the bone, it won’t be ideal since you’re probably still is going instead anywhere from five dollars to $10 on average a meal depending on how much pasta you can take before you get tired of it. And believe me, despite all the variety, it all starts tasting the same much sooner than expected.
Nonetheless, this year gave me some of the best pasta that has ever graced my tongue. I’m so grateful for it, and I still absolutely love Olive Garden. I have to admit I never went to the restaurant before obtaining the pass because it was always outside my family’s budget.
My favorite variation is maybe five-cheese marinara with shrimp. I also learned that I absolutely love the Zuppa Toscana soup. Out of all the soup choices that come with the pass, it tops the list. My second choice is chicken gnocchi. I tried every soup, but rarely ordered anything else other than Zuppa afterwards.
I realized that bread sticks are the bane of my calories, so tempting and delicious and soft, yet so hard to resist, bad for me, and can get a little boring after a while. Another approach it is to ask for a dish or dispenser of olive oil. The oil is good for you, and it adds a little extra flavor to keep things new for your food and appetizer — and you can sprinkle it over your salad.
I start to hate the salads after a while because they just get old so quickly. In fact, that was the first thing I got sick of. People rave about the salads because they are so big and free, but it essentially is just onions, cabbage, olives, croutons, and tomatoes.
I will try again maybe a couple years from now to get the pass once I long for more pasta again. But it won’t be for a while given all the pasta I ate. I don’t know if I will get it since I only got it this time based on pure luck with the speed of my mouse. If I were to try again, I would prioritize the one month version this time so I don’t get tired of it. I assume people have a similar experience when they win a Chipotle or McDonald’s lifetime card (David Dobrik and Warren Buffett/Bill Gates have them).
Is the pasta pass worth it?
Summing it up, yes, it’s worth it. But expect to get tired of pasta quicker than you think despite all the variations. You’ll probably drop to around two or three trips a month. Even though I love saving money and I’m really good at doing things to save money and eating large amounts of food, I got sick of the pass sooner than I thought.
I did the math, and the cost-per-visit does decrease the more times you visit per week but it decreases at a diminishing rate. You get your biggest bang for the buck by going at least three times a week. Also, people forget to factor in the cost for tips (be ethical and tip – waiters and waitresses depend on that to get paid) and the cost of the pass itself.
If you’re thinking the pasta’s free and it’s the cheapest thing ever, it’s not. If you go every day, you’re still paying at least $4 a meal — and you can make a meal at home for a little cheaper (but not much cheaper). This pass is best suited for people who love Olive Garden and go there anyways.
Recently, I heard they released a lifetime pasta pass. If you love Olive Garden and go often, getting one could be well-worth it — you’ll save a lot of money if you could use that for the next 40+ years of your life.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’d love to. And I’d have more realistic expectations of how frequently I’d go. I think rather than lengthening the duration, adding to the menu would be amazing. If the pass gave you a large variety of appetizer and dessert, I’d be in heaven.
Oh, and pro tip: the breadsticks and salad are good, but they fill you up quickly. So avoid eating too much if you want to eat more pasta.
And above all, have fun! When it became more of a chore than an enjoyment, I gave myself a break even if it meant I wasn’t saving money. This should be an awesome experience, not a hassle.