Olive Garden: At Least 1 More Breadstick Creation On the Way

Darden Restaurants Inc. Reports 3rd Quarter Earnings Results

NEW YORK — Olive Garden isn’t finished dreaming up new ways to use its breadsticks.

The Italian restaurant chain said earlier this month it would introduce “breadstick sandwiches” as part of a broader menu revamp intended to play up its most popular offerings. The sandwiches don’t arrive until June 1, but Olive Garden already has a follow-up act planned with “breadstick crostini” in August.

The “breadstick crostini” — or toasted bread — will be sliced and used as part of an appetizer, said Jose Duenas, Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing.

“The flavor profile of the breadstick is powerful,” Duenas said in an interview.

Olive Garden, which is owned by Darden Restaurants (DRI), has been fighting to hold onto customers as competition has intensified from rivals that are seen as quicker, more affordable and more in line with changing tastes.

Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI) | FindTheCompany

To win back diners, the chain has tried to modernize its image by ditching its long-running TV ads evoking Old World charm and adding menu items to offer greater variety. Now under new management, Olive Garden says it wants to focus on the things it does best, rather than chase trends.

To enhance its unlimited salad, for instance, Duenas said Olive Garden will start offering grilled chicken as a topping. It will also bring back a variation of its “Tour of Italy” dish, which includes smaller portions of three entrees.

The breadstick creations are notable in part because of a public spat last year with an investor that was trying to take control of the company. Among other criticisms laid out in a nearly 300-page presentation, Starboard Value said Olive Garden wasn’t being disciplined in distributing its unlimited breadsticks, which led to waste. It also said the quality of the breadsticks seemed to have declined and compared them to hot dog buns.

Soon after, Starboard ended up winning control of Darden’s board of directors. Olive Garden hasn’t said what changes it has made — if any — to address the criticisms detailed by Starboard. But during an appearance on “Wall Street Week” earlier this month, Starboard CEO Jeff Smith said “it might surprise people that I actually like the breadsticks.”

Since the breadstick sandwiches were announced, Olive Garden executive chef Jim Nuetzi said he has been getting other suggestions for dishes that incorporate breadsticks.

Taco Bell, Pizza Hut to Boot Artificial Ingredients

Taco Bell Menu

NEW YORK — Taco Bell and Pizza Hut say they’re getting rid of artificial colors and flavors, making them the latest big food companies scrambling to distance themselves from ingredients people might find unappetizing.

Instead of “black pepper flavor,” for instance, Taco Bell will start using actual black pepper in its seasoned beef, says Liz Matthews, the chain’s chief food innovation officer.

The Mexican-style chain also says the artificial dye Yellow No. 6 will be removed from its nacho cheese, Blue No. 1 will be removed from its avocado ranch dressing and carmine, a bright pigment, will be removed from its red tortilla strips.

Matthews said some of the new recipes are being tested in select markets and should be in stores nationally by the end of the year.

The country’s biggest food makers are facing pressure from smaller rivals that position themselves as more wholesome alternatives. Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) in particular has found success in marketing itself as an antidote to traditional fast food. In April, Chipotle announced it had removed genetically modified organisms from its food, even though the Food and Drug Administration says GMOs are safe.

Critics say the purging of chemicals is a response to unfounded fears over ingredients, but companies are nevertheless rushing to ensure their recipes don’t become disadvantages. In recent months, restaurant chains including Panera Bread (PNRA), McDonald’s (MCD) and Subway have said they’re switching recipes for one or more products to use ingredients people can more easily recognize.

John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, said companies are realizing some ingredients may not be worth the potential harm they might cause to their images, given changing attitudes about additives.

Additionally, he noted that the removal of artificial ingredients can be a way for companies to give their food a healthy glow without making meaningful changes to their nutritional profiles. For instance, Coupland said reducing salt, sugar or portion sizes would have a far bigger impact on public health.

Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are owned by Yum Brands (YUM), which had hinted the changes would be on the way. At a conference for investors late last year, Yum CEO Greg Creed referred to the shifting attitudes and the desire for “real food” as a revolution in the industry.

Yum Brands Inc. (YUM) | FindTheCompany

Representatives at KFC and Yum’s corporate headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky weren’t immediately available to comment on whether the fried chicken chain would also be removing artificial ingredients.

Pizza Hut says it will remove artificial flavors and colors by the end of July. It said it will start listing all it ingredients online once the changes are completed.

Taco Bell says it will take out artificial colors, artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup and unsustainable palm oil from its food by the end of 2015. It says artificial preservatives will be removed “where possible” by 2017. The moves don’t affect fountain drinks or co-branded products, such as its Doritos-flavored taco shells.

Brian Niccol, the chain’s CEO, said the company would work to keep its menu affordable.

“I do not want to lose any element of being accessible to the masses,” Niccol said.

When asked whether the changes would affect taste, a representative for Taco Bell said in an email that “It will be the same great tasting Taco Bell that people love.”

From Flat Broke at 37 to Self-Made Millionaire

Barry MaherThrough saving and investing, a lot of hard work and, in his words, more than a little luck, motivational business speaker and author Barry Maher went from being broke at age 37 to being a self-made millionaire and semi-retiree who can afford to retire completely.

What Does ‘Semi-Retired’ Really Mean?

Now 67, Maher only works when he wants, how he wants and as often as he wants. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. But who knew this would be in the cards for the boy who started out selling greeting cards door-to-door?

Maher was self-employed through college and built a successful business selling advertising products from scratch, but sold it so he could pursue a career writing fiction. Unfortunately, he financed the sale, the new owners ran the business into the ground and he lost any chance of being paid in full.

“I only got about 30 to 40 percent of the base price and a small pittance of what was supposed to be royalties. What was intended to be an annuity turned into nothing with breathtaking speed.” Making matters worse, his novels weren’t selling well and he found himself flat broke at the age of 37.

So how did Maher turn that situation around to become so successful?

The Journey from Broke to Millionaire

Maher credits his becoming a millionaire in large part to making good money in the corporate world and as a speaker. Armed with his experience of building a business from nothing, Maher got a job with GTE as a salesman. “I busted my butt because I was absolutely broke,” he confesses. “I worked ridiculous hours from the time I woke up to the time I collapsed into bed.” Maher quickly became the Fortune 500 company’s top salesman, earning a promotion and financial security.

With money to invest, Maher dabbled in the stock market. He admits that he doesn’t have the time or the expertise to pick individual stocks, but he has bought many index funds that have done well over the years.

Maher also credits his frugality for helping him to save the money he has. As he explained, “Whenever I buy something I think of how hard I had to work to make the money for it.” For example, he imagines his Honda Accord, not just as a car, but as whatever he had to do to earn the $25,000 it cost him. “That mindset always makes my Honda seem more attractive when I start to think about buying a Mercedes,” Maher quips. Barry’s view on his Honda is the same I have on my 1998 Chevy Lumina that I inherited from my grandmother.

One day, Maher’s literary agent suggested that instead of writing more fiction, he should try his hand at a business book. Although dubious at first, Maher wrote a specialty book on Yellow Pages advertising and was soon asked to speak at small business events on the topic. Maher took this opportunity to broaden his field of expertise and he began consulting on various sales and management issues.

The book that really helped to establish Maher as a sought-after motivational speaker was “Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business,” which was translated into a number of languages and was cited by “Today’s Librarian” as “one of the seven essential popular business books.”

Common Misconceptions about Millionaires

Maher stressed that many millionaires today live normal lifestyles free of limousines and yachts. He drives an economy car and lives in a typical house. Because he doesn’t have a mortgage and is frugal, he could afford to retire when he was 60. As he points out, a million dollars doesn’t have the same spending power it once did. The writer estimates that, excluding travel and business expenses, it costs him significantly less than $100,000 a year to maintain his lifestyle.

It is easy to be intimidated by Maher’s success and accomplishments, but everyone has hiccups to overcome on the road to success. Even though he might have changed some of his past decisions, Maher acknowledges that without his experiences, he wouldn’t have anything to pass on to others.

For example, Maher gave many free presentations until he got himself established as a speaker. His first gig as a paid speaker was an excruciating 6-hour seminar on the Yellow Pages that he put together himself. “I bored the paint off the walls,” he recalls. “It was terrible! But if I hadn’t done that wrong, I never would have learned how to do it right.”

What Financial Freedom Really Looks Like

Although he has been broke, Maher has never been seriously in debt. “I don’t buy it until I have the cash to pay for it,” he says. For Maher, the biggest advantage of avoiding debt was having the financial freedom to try a new career if he didn’t enjoy his job.

He built an emergency fund to know that he wouldn’t starve if nobody hired him for six months or a year. In the corporate world, this financial independence earned Maher a reputation for being brutally honest, “because I knew I could walk away from that job anytime I wanted. That is the kind of freedom that kept me working.”

“The best investment you’re ever going to make is the investment in yourself,” says Maher. “You can’t take charge of your life if you’re paying money to other people. Then the bank’s in charge of your life. You’ve got to get out from under the thumb of debt if you’re actually going to succeed in the way that you would like to.”

Advice to Give Your Younger Self

I asked Maher what he would tell young workers about how to succeed:

  1. Do your homework. Maher’s worst investment was buying a franchise for a sales business. “I thought I’d investigated it, but I really hadn’t and it turned out to be a loss. I basically had to write it off.”
  2. Be open to trying something new. If you have too rigid an idea of what your career or your retirement will look like, then you will miss amazing opportunities that present themselves.
  3. Recognize the real cost of your purchases. You might think of frugality as being a drag, but if you don’t acknowledge that every dollar you spend costs you time at work, then you will never get out of the work-spend-work-spend treadmill.
  4. Don’t be in denial about your situation. It’s hard to fess up when things are going the way you want, but you have to own your situation, drop the denial and work your crazy to get out of it.

Generation Rent: Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes

House For Sale sign and daffodils, Spring of 2010Back in the day, moving out of your parents’ home probably meant you were moving into one of your own.

But whether you blame it on the economy or just a generational shift in values, young adult homeowners are becoming increasingly rare.

Case in point: recent stats find that only 38 percent of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 owned homes in 2012, compared to 52 percent of the same age group in 1980.

So just why is “generation rent” so adverse to home-buying?

Well, that depends on where they live. Asurvey from Carrington Mortgage Services found that the underlying causes actually vary from region to region.

In the Western states, for example, millennials are most worried about being able to shore up enough for a down payment. That makes sense — considering the region’s average down payment amount tends to far exceed the national average.

Moving over to the Midwest however, millennials have misgivings for a much different reason: student loan debt. Experts suspect this is because salaries tend to be lower here, leaving student loan debt taking a greater chunk of the generation’s take-home pay — and making homeownership a more daunting challenge.

In the Northeast, Gen Y is most concerned with credit card debt, while Southern millennials actually shy away from homeownership for two reasons: concern about low credit scores, as well as simply not knowing where to start.

But not everyone is ditching the white-picket fence altogether. Despite their current low confidence, more than half of millennials surveyed said that they plan to buy a home within the next two years.

Pending Home Sales Jump to Strongest Level in 9 Years

California Homes

WASHINGTON — Americans signed contracts to buy homes in April at the fastest pace in nearly nine years, evidence that steady job growth is strengthening the real estate market.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index climbed 3.4 percent to 112.4 last month. It’s the fourth consecutive monthly gain. The index now stands at its highest level since May 2006.

The confidence has returned to housing, not only as shelter but as a good long-term investment.

“The confidence has returned to housing, not only as shelter but as a good long-term investment,” said Ron Peltier, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway’s real estate affiliate, HomeServices of America.

The upswing comes after a year of strong hiring, which has heightened demand to buy houses. Increased sales should help bolster the economy, but the surge could potentially destabilize the housing market, Peltier cautioned. Inventories remain low, causing home values to rise at a pace that is eclipsing wage growth.

Signed contracts are a barometer of future purchases. A one- to two-month lag usually exists between a contract and a completed sale.

Pending sales increased in the Northeast, Midwest and South, while barely edging upward in the West. Greater demand has fueled sales growth this year after a lackluster 2014. Still, there is evidence that limited inventories are beginning to weigh on the market.

Sales of existing homes fell slightly between April and March to an annual clip of 5.04 million last month, the Realtors reported last week. The decrease may reflect complications in finalizing sales in addition to the shortage of listings.

Less Inventory

The inventory of homes listed for sale has declined 0.9 percent over the past year, so would-be buyers have fewer choices and may face bidding wars.

On average, existing homes sold in 39 days last month, versus 52 days in March and 62 days in February, the Realtors said.

Employers have hired 3.1 million new workers over the past 12 months. But wages are rising at a 2.1 percent annual clip, about four times slower than prices of existing homes.

Nationwide, the median price of an existing home surged 8.9 percent over the past 12 months to $219,400.

Unless home values level off because more supply comes onto the market, economists warn that buyers will be priced out of the market and sales will suffer.

Still, there is tremendous pressure on buyers to find homes quickly, since average rates for 30-year, fixed mortgages may start to climb from the relatively low sub-4 percent level.

A new analysis by Realtor.com indicates nationwide that waiting one year to buy will subtract $18,672 from the benefits of owning over the course of 30 years.