Olive Garden focuses on food, customers
Darden Restaurants chief executive Gene Lee isn’t looking for a revolution to fix what’s ailing at flagship chain Olive Garden.
Five months after starting as permanent head of the company, Lee said he has been trying to hammer home to Darden’s 150,000 employees that the focus needs to be on customers and food.
Darden’s new board of directors has agreed with Lee’s priorities, he said, choosing first to improve the backbone of the restaurants. Lee stepped in as interim chief executive in October after activist investor Starboard Value persuaded shareholders to replace Darden’s entire board of investors. That battle also led to the ouster of chief executive Clarence Otis. Lee got the job permanently in February.
Olive Garden is one of the seven chains in Darden’s portfolio, but its 840 locations make it the most important in the company. It’s also been the poorest-performing, only recently turning back years of declining same-restaurant sales.
After a menu revamp in early 2014, Olive Garden has been introducing high-profile items such as breadstick sandwiches and more classically inspired dishes such as sausage rigatoni.
Simple menu changes have been part of the plan, taking popular items and food combinations and presenting them in new ways, he said.
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