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Olive Garden’s unlimited pasta pass ‘black market’ is actually a perfect illustration of why ticket-scalping works

(Photo via Olive Garden)
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This is why we can’t have nice things … like seven glorious weeks of unlimited pasta alfredo.

On Monday, Olive Garden — popular Italian restaurant chain and occasional fulfiller of dreams — announced an A+ marketing gimmick in which, for a mere $100, the restaurant would bestow seven-week “unlimited pasta passes” to 1,000 carb-loving fans.

The passes sold out, predictably, in little more than an hour. And from there, they (just as predictably) spread to eBay and Craigslist, where, as of Thursday morning, several dozen passes were listed at prices as high as $499 apiece. In the bidding war that followed — because I mean, who doesn’t want two months of mass-produced fettuccine — Olive Garden spokeswoman Tara Gray rose above the din, clarifying that the passes were (a) not transferrable and (b) that the secondary market could not exist.

But … why not?

“[Olive Garden] is working with eBay to inform users bidding for the coveted ‘Never Ending Pasta Pass’ that the passes can’t be resold,” explained CNN’s Ben Rooney. “Anyone who has already purchased a pass on eBay should call the company to find out how to proceed.”

Here’s the thing: More than a lulzy oversight on Olive Garden’s part, this incident — if “incident” isn’t too grandiose a term — is also a pretty perfect illustration of the economics of online ticket scalping, and the argument over who’s responsible for a practice that, frequently, makes events more expensive and less attainable for ordinary, OG-loving consumers.

Adam Goldstein, of The New York Times and Planet Money, laid out the phenomenon this way in 2013. Essentially, secondary markets develop to balance discrepancies between supply and demand, as created by the original ticket-venders. In this case, there are a limited number of Olive Garden pasta passes; the demand is high enough that people will pay incredible amounts of money for them; and yet — in its effort to generate social media buzz — Olive Garden sets the price point well below what the market is willing to pay.

A mere $100 for seven weeks of pasta? That’s absurd. A plate of Olive Garden pasta is usually around $13. Even if you only use the pass three times a week during that period, and get one plate of pasta each time — which, let’s be real, does not even begin taking advantage of the deal — the pass is worth $273. At least.

Likewise, a ticket to see OK Go in D.C. next week costs a measly $25. On Stubhub, hopeful entrepreneurs are already offering them for as much as $100 apiece.

This, in essence, is the dirty economic secret of scalping, whether we’re talking about pasta or Beyonce tickets or anything else: Concert promoters and other sellers are quick to blame the scalpers for inflating prices, or companies, such as eBay and Craigslist, for failing to police them. In reality, the best way to stop people from reselling things is to charge more for those things to begin with. Frequently, the reason for charging less is a little nefarious: It means people are more likely to spend money at the event itself. (If I’m paying something like $1.50 for a figure-ruining marathon of pasta, it’s easy to justify, say, a couple $8 glasses of wine.)

Ticketmaster president Jared Smith explained to Goldstein last year that the bands that charge the least for their tickets are also the bands whose tickets get scalped the most.

“There [are entire corporations] built on exploiting companies’ failure to properly price items initially,” Goldstein wrote. Corporations like Ticketmaster, Stubhub — and our good friend eBay.

A number of solutions have been proposed to cut down on this kind of thing, thereby guaranteeing that economically irrational prices can stay. Australia has for years debated legislation to crack down on scalping, which eBay has vociferously opposed. Meanwhile, a law passed in California last fall limits the practice of using bots, or computer software, to buy off blocks of tickets for resale.

Olive Garden’s approach was a little different, if no less stringent: In an unsuccessful attempt to preempt the secondary market entirely, it included a line about non-transferability in its pasta pass’s fine print.

At the end of the day, though, there’s an easier solution: actually charge what people are willing to pay. For the pasta pass, that looks to be roughly $300.

Some of us really like our carbs.