Olive Garden created quite a buzz earlier this fall when the Orlando, Fla.-based restaurant chain announced the return of its popular Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion with an added caveat: Never Ending Pasta Bowl Pass. Olive Garden sold 1,000 “Pasta Passes” on-line for $100, giving people the opportunity to receive unlimited pasta, pasta toppings and Coca-Cola soft drinks from Sept. 22 through Nov. 9.

Shortly after the Pasta Passes went on sale, many began popping up on on-line auction site eBay for multiples of the original $100 purchase price. The heightened demand surely left manufacturers in the dry pasta category wondering if there is something they can do to spur sales in what has been a sluggish segment.

In the 52 weeks ended Oct. 5, dollar sales in the spaghetti/macaroni/pasta (no noodles) category totaled $1,896,752,000, down 1.2% from the same period a year ago, according to Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. Unit sales fared only slightly better, posting an increase of 0.36% in the period, to 1,453,772,160.

Barilla broadens lineup

Barilla America, Inc., Bannockburn, Ill., with a strong 30% share of the dry pasta, non-noodle market, managed to squeeze out a 0.50% year-over-year dollar sales gain on a 1% increase in unit sales. The base Barilla brand, with dollar sales of $522,568,000, improved nearly 3% during the 52 weeks ended Oct. 4, which helped offset a 19% decline in dollar sales for the Barilla Plus brand.

Meanwhile, Barilla Veggie, featuring 1 full serving of vegetables per 3.5-oz portion, was recognized by Better Homes and Gardens as the “Best New Pasta” for 2014 in its nationwide survey of 80,000 participants. Made with freshly pureed in-season vegetables, Barilla Veggie is available in Barilla Veggie Elbows, Barilla Veggie Penne (freshly pureed tomatoes and carrots), Barilla Veggie Rotini (freshly pureed spinach and zucchini), Barilla Veggie Spaghetti and Barilla Veggie Thin Spaghetti.

The company also has launched Barilla Collezione Regional Specialties, a line of five new pasta shapes and Barilla’s signature tortellini and tortelloni, inspired by the regions of Italy. And Barilla continues to gain traction in its gluten-free line, which launched in select U.S. grocery stores in September 2013, with national availability beginning earlier this year. Made with a combination of non-bioengineered corn and rice, the pastas are produced in a dedicated gluten-free facility in Italy.

Private label push

Private label also plays a prominent role in the pasta category. With dollar sales of $516,374,784, private label was nearly on par with Barilla’s non-noodle dry pasta sales during the 52 weeks ended Oct. 4, according to I.R.I. Although dollar sales were down 2.5% year over year, there could be a reversal in store with the growing number of players in the category.

Pasta is among the items that will be offered as part of Price First, a new opening price point private label line that is set to debut nationally in Wal-Mart U.S. stores in the coming months. And earlier this month, Aldi, Inc., Batavia, Ill., made its gluten-free brand LiveGfree a permanent addition to its shelves. The line features 17 items, including penne, fusilli and brown rice spaghetti.

“Store brands have moved far beyond cheap generic knock-offs to become trusted, quality lines that can compete effectively with national brands,” said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. “They usually have higher profit margins for retailers than name brands, help differentiate a retailer from competition, and help build consumer loyalty.”

Private label accounted for almost a fifth of the $530 billion total food and beverage market dollar sales in 2013. In its report “Private label foods & beverages in the U.S., 8h edition,” Packaged Facts estimated retail dollar sales of private label food and beverages were $102 billion in 2013, up about 2%. Food products accounted for approximately 80% of the private label segment’s sales.

New World relies on Ronzoni

New World Pasta Co., Harrisburg, Pa., continues to tout its gluten-free pasta under the Ronzoni brand. Its gluten-free spaghetti, penne rigate and rotini each contain 19 grams of whole grain and 200 calories per serving. The pasta is low in fat and sodium- and cholesterol-free. It is produced in a dedicated gluten-free facility and is available at select U.S. grocery stores.

Non-noodle dry pasta dollar sales at New World dipped 2% in the 52 weeks ended Oct. 4, but unit sales increased nearly 1%. The company’s Ronzoni, Skinner and Prince brands all performed well over the past year, helping offset some of the declines in the Creamette, San Giorgio, Ronzoni Healthy Harvest and Ronzoni Smart Taste brands.