September 29, 2020

Restaurants

The Next Winning Recipe?

A series of concepts has sputtered, and Darden is taking extra caution as it expands a new, healthy-eating chain of restaurants.

Amy Keller | 11/1/2007

Care and feeding

There’s a reason why Darden is being cautious with its newest baby. The company needs a hit.

Darden swings for the fences when it introduces concepts, aiming to create chains that generate billion-dollar annual sales. But Darden’s in-house creative team hasn’t delivered a home run since it launched Olive Garden 25 years ago.

Darden — which ranks 13th on Florida Trend’s Florida Public 150 list, a ranking of Florida-based companies by revenue — abandoned its 1993 foray into Chinese food with the China Coast chain after just two years. Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill, launched in 1999, was supposed to do for slow-cooked barbecue what Olive Garden and Red Lobster did for pasta and seafood. But by 2006, Smokey Bones, Darden’s third-largest chain, was faltering. It was profitable, but Darden executives concluded that the menu was simply too narrow to attract the customer following it needed for big-scale success.


Entrées at Seasons 52 have no more than 475 calories. The concept originally called for a weekly menu overhaul, but executives decided that customers needed more time to become familiar with the offerings. Instead, menus will be overhauled four times a year — in sync with the seasons. [Photo: Seasons 52]
After an effort to reposition Smokey Bones, the company pulled the plug, closing 54 restaurants and putting the 73 remaining restaurants up for sale. “What they bumped up against is that barbecue itself was not as easy to do or didn’t have the same market appeal as they expected, so they’ve retrenched,” says Christopher Muller, a restaurant professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

Meanwhile, another Darden chain, Caribbean-themed Bahama Breeze, was underperforming as well. In April, the company closed nine Bahama Breeze restaurants and will retool the 23-restaurant chain before resuming expansion in 2009.

Amid the churn, Blaine Sweatt, who’d made himself an industry legend by developing Olive Garden, retired after 26 years as the company’s point man for developing concepts.

Darden CEO Clarence Otis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has acknowledged to investors that the company had made mistakes in both concept and execution. Both Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones were too narrow in their appeal, Otis said in at CIBA World Market’s Consumer Growth Conference last July. Bahama Breeze, he added, also had problems with operating costs. “Unfortunately, with both concepts, we accelerated expansion prior to recognizing and dealing with these kinds of issues.”

Tags: North Central

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