Darden Restaurants CEO to retire in May; insider promoted


ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – The CEO of Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other chains, will retire in May and be replaced by the company’s president and chief operating officer .

Gene Lee, 60, said on Friday he would remain chairman of the board after stepping down after seven years as CEO. He will be replaced by Rick Cardenas, a longtime Darden employee.

Lee is credited with successfully guiding Darden through the pandemic. In addition to Olive Garden and LongHorn, the Orlando-based company also owns Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s. It has more than 1,850 locations, making it the largest full-service restaurant chain in the country with annual sales of over $ 7 billion.

Restaurant analyst John Gordon told the Orlando Sentinel that Lee had been “an extremely strong and stable hand that has stabilized the business.” He called Darden’s handling of the pandemic a “virtuoso performance”. The company has established a paid sick leave policy for its employees and has provided emergency pay to employees who have been placed on leave when dining rooms are closed.

“There was never any doubt about Darden’s survival,” Gordon said.

Cardenas, 53, started with the company as an hourly employee in 1984 and worked his way up the ranks. He became CFO in 2016 and became President and COO 11 months ago.

He said he does not foresee any major changes in the way the company operates.

“I really think the strategy we have is the right strategy,” Cardenas told analysts and shareholders on a conference call Friday. “I don’t see a big change in our strategic priorities, in part because I played a big role in drafting them. “

Lee said the company will increase its minimum hourly wage from $ 10 to $ 12, including tips, starting next month and that most employees will earn more. He said the average restaurant worker would earn $ 20 an hour.

The $ 12 figure “is what I would call entry-level salary and more in rural America,” Lee said. “In the big cities, you don’t hire anyone for $ 12 an hour today. This is an increase and a guarantee for our workforce that will likely have more of an impact on Cheddar’s than on any of our other brands.


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