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.
As the two chains struggled and Sweatt departed, the company moved to keep growth from flagging. In August, Darden announced it was acquiring Rare Hospitality International, the Atlanta-based company that operates LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille, at a price equal to $38.15 per share. The $1.4-billion deal gives Darden two established brands with growth potential. LongHorn has 287 units along the East Coast and in the Midwest. Capital Grille has 29 locations and offers a fine-dining experience that could complement the Seasons 52 brand.
Darden also is updating its two signature brands. Next year, the company will open 40 Olive Gardens, the most since 1994. It also is revamping Red Lobster, hoping to boost repeat business. In an attempt to appear more upscale, the chain has unveiled newly remodeled and modern-looking Red Lobsters in Ohio, California and Texas.
Meanwhile, it’s proceeding carefully with Seasons 52.
Sweatt’s division conceived the idea of a health-focused chain in the early 1990s, when consumer research suggested that Americans were looking for healthier options. Sweatt told Nation’s Restaurant News he was looking for a restaurant where he could “eat a little more healthy without having to give up too much.”
Darden gave Seasons 52 the green light in 2001, but appears determined to avoid the mistakes that plagued Smokey Bones and Bahama Breeze. In the six years since, Darden has opened only five Seasons 52s in Florida and two in Atlanta.
Early reviews have been positive. Most nights there is a one- to two-hour wait to get into the restaurant; one critic called Seasons 52 “fine dining with Red Lobster prices,” and Orlando Magazine this past May voted Seasons 52 “Restaurant Most Worth the Wait.” Interestingly, while Seasons executives expected to score best among Baby Boomers, the restaurant has actually been more popular among the 32-to-55 crowd. In fiscal year 2007, the chain rang up $40 million in sales.
As Seasons 52 moves into expansion mode, Judge won’t identify exactly where it’s going, suggesting only that Darden is looking at locations in south Florida, the Tampa Bay area and sites along the East Coast, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The chain won’t go where it can’t meet Darden’s financial expectations, he says.
At CIBC World Market’s July conference, Otis indicated the company will limit Seasons restaurants to areas where household median income is $100,000 or more. “We want to make sure that we take the time upfront before expanding too rapidly to do the work and rework that really are a normal part of the venture process.”
SEASONS GREETINGS: In Florida, Seasons has locations in Altamonte Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton. [Photo: Seasons 52]