It began five years ago when Sparks residents Rhonda and Jerry Walker were watching CNN and saw that Olive Garden was releasing a nationwide All-You-Can-Eat Pasta pass for $100 per person for seven weeks. At the selected day and time, they went online and snagged a pair of passes.
Over seven weeks, they missed only two nights at the Italian restaurant.
Frequenting the Olive Garden at 1481 East Lincoln Way, the couple soon became even bigger fans of the Italian kitchen and the people who work there. In 2015, the Walkers received a head’s up that the passes were going to be on sale again and they secured two more 7-week AYCE passes.
Then it got even better. A year later, Olive Garden offered the individual passes again along with a $300 Family Pass where a family of four could get up to eight to-go orders per day, plus eat in-house. Rhonda says that they believe they receive about $17,000 worth of Olive Garden food annually from their passes.
The Walkers are gracious about this opportunity, ambassadors to the Olive Garden brand, and love the Sparks Olive Garden staff. The couple goes there for every special occasion including birthday and wedding celebrations, even Christmas Eve.
They try to tip well, but the Walkers keep track of their favorite servers and often purchase thank you gifts for all of the managers and employees, including the cooks and bussers. They have given them lottery tickets, beer, mystery cash, and even a balloon ride to use during the Great Reno Balloon Races.
The Olive Garden has even gone a step further in taking care of them in return. General Manager Jason Schwehm (who was awarded Darden Restaurants’ Diamond Club status in 2016, joining a nationwide group of top performing managers) has the Walkers special pasta trophies, wine glasses, and miscellaneous gifts. When Rhonda’s brother got into a motorcycle accident a while back, Schwehm gave the Walkers an Olive Garden pasta pass for him to use while he recovered.
“He used it every night and has a family with two little girls so it made a huge impact. We’re so grateful,” Rhonda says. “(Jason Schwehm) was voted one of the best managers throughout the country and we know why- he is the best, he’s extraordinary, the whole staff is,” she adds.
The Walkers will also give some of their Olive Garden to Sparks Police Department dispatchers and officers, local businesses, and co-workers.
In 2018, Olive Garden released an AYCE Annual Pass along with its 8-week individual pass. Only a thousand annual passes were produced and they sold out in less than a second. Jerry Walker was lucky enough to secure the annual pass (so he can eat at Olive Garden every day for a year if he wants to) and Rhonda got the 8-week individual pass. So now the couple is trying to budget out their tips. “We think it will be around four thousand dollars,” she says.
So what do they eat most at Olive Garden?
The Walkers do try to watch their weight, never ordering breadsticks and starting with the smaller “refill” bowl so they don’t fill up on pasta too fast. They eat a lot of salad, but do like to experiment with the different pasta sauces- Rhonda’s favorite meal is a spicy red meat sauce with Pappardelle noodles and her husband is partial to the angel hair pasta with creamy Alfredo and crispy chicken topping. The Sparks’ servers know that they don’t like tomatoes or onions and give them extra pepperoncinis in their salads.
“Everyone is just so nice and we feel like they genuinely like us. We’re very lucky people and it’s so fun. The best part is when we walk in and everyone yells, ‘The Walkers are here!’ It makes us feel special,” Rhonda says.
Although all of Olive Garden’s pasta passes are sold out, it will be hosting a Never Ending Pasta Bowl event on September 24.
As an added bonus, you just might run into the Walkers there.