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In 2014, the hedge fund Starboard Value published a presentation criticising the business of the restaurant chain Olive Garden, a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants. The presentation claimed that:

Darden stopped salting the water in which it cooks pasta

According to Darden management, Darden decided to stop salting the water to get an extended warranty on their pots. Pasta is Olive Garden's core dish and must be prepared properly.

If you google "how to cook pasta", the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water.

This was widely reported at the time, e.g. in Business Insider: Olive Garden Is Breaking One Of The Fundamental Rules Of Cooking Pasta


However, the claim seems rather dubious to me. Most cooking pots, particular for professional use, are made of stainless steel, which is very resistant to corrosion. I have used them myself for cooking my entire adult life, as have most people I know, and I have never heard of them being damaged by salted water. Also, most liquid dishes, such as broths and soups, contain salt, so a warranty limiting salting would considerably interfere with regular cooking practices - it seems unlikely a restaurant would accept that.

Finally, in a related question on cooking.SE: Is there evidence that adding salt to water prior to boiling can damage a stainless steel pan?, one answer claims that while stainless steel can indeed corrode, the effect of salt is negligible.

The claim about Olive Garden and salting is referenced in many publications, but they all seem to be based on the same presentation cited above, so there really seems to be only a single source.

Is there any evidence that Olive Garden had a warranty for their pots that restricted salting?

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    I remember hearing this story, and hearing that the problem is only if you salt the water before it is boiling. This makes zero sense to me, but I invite answerers to be clear on the matter if they are posting experimental results. – Oddthinking Feb 5 at 11:03
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    @sleske: Ah yes, so it does. Fair point. (To be clear: I was referring to people who linked to (e.g.) peer-reviewed experimental studies, not personal original research.) – Oddthinking Feb 5 at 12:47
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    @sleske By the way, it is unrelated to answering, but I think the assessment of how crucial the salting is to the pasta cooking process is overblown. Salting, as traditionally performed, likely has no effect on the cooking process at all, only on the resulting flavor of the prepared dish. thekitchn.com/does-salting-pa-158293 – called2voyage Feb 5 at 14:26
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    @called2voyage: Yes, I know :-). However, many people consider the salting crucial precisely because it improves the flavor. Many cooks consider the flavor a crucial element ;-). – sleske Feb 5 at 14:30
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    Wouldn't they make a lot more money selling non-bland pasta than they spend replacing pots? – dandavis Feb 5 at 19:03
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It seems likely to be true.

In particular, Starboard Value made the claim as part of an extended, savage, and heavily reported critique of the then-management of the chain, where the "no salting" bit featured heavily in the reportage. The attack was clearly and openly being made as part of a takeover attempt. (https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/940944/000092189514002031/ex991dfan14a06297125_091114.pdf) The then-management responded to the particulars of the attack, and that response was reported on, but the salting thing was not addressed in said reportage. (http://fortune.com/2014/09/15/darden-olive-garden-starboard/) It was a key enough point that if it had been fabrication, or in some other way significantly incorrect, they would have been well-served to refute it, and that refutation would almost certainly have been commented on.

Finally, two years after the fact, after Starbound Value had been successful, there was some follow-up reporting that asserted that, in spite of making a number of other changes, they still weren't salting their pasta, due to the fact that it would endanger the warranty on the pots. (https://www.businessinsider.com/olive-garden-still-wont-salt-pasta-2016-4)

Thus, having this be false would require incorrect reporting not just once but in multiple independent cases, and would suggest strongly that the leadership of a major corporation failed to contradict an obvious falsehood while under direct attack. It's not impossible, but it is starting to look implausible.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • My assertions were on the matter of the claims and reportage. I've now added links to the claims and reportage in question. Hopefully that will be sufficient to count as references. – Ben Barden Feb 5 at 19:49

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