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The Next Winning Recipe?

Clifford Pleau moves about briskly as he hands out grades and critiques in his culinary class. His classroom is a kitchen in the Orlando offices of the Seasons 52 restaurant chain. His students are the executive chefs and general managers from the seven existing restaurants in the chain — the new “polished casual” concept that Orlando-based Darden Restaurants plans to expand in the next two years. As executive chef and director of culinary development, Pleau will be responsible for developing a new seasonal menu four times a year. Today, he’s teaching the autumn menu.

MAN FOR ALL SEASONS: Clifford Pleau, Seasons 52 director of culinary development, serves up entrées at Orlando’s Seasons 52. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
One team’s snapper curry needs a little more color, Pleau says. He shows the next duo how to stack the salmon salad higher and fan out colorful elements on the plate so the portions appear larger. Pleau’s students have two days to learn how to expertly prepare and present items ranging from the pan-seared snapper in spicy curry sauce to a cedar plank-roasted salmon. Once schooled, they’ll return to teach the chefs who work under them.

Season 52’s healthy-dining concept is uncharted terrain in the restaurant industry. And Darden has carefully considered everything from the restaurants’ design to the pricing of entrées.

Menus point out that no single entrée has more than 475 calories. There are no deep-fat fryers — most entrées and appetizers are grilled or roasted over oak or mesquite fires.

Sleek and modern, Seasons 52 interiors feature mahogany woodwork, high ceilings and a warm feel. The restaurant aims to offer service akin to that of a four-star restaurant, but with lower prices.

Entrées range from $10.75 for a barbecue grilled chicken salad to $24.95 for a six-ounce char-crust filet mignon. The wine list features 140 selections, with 70 varieties available by the glass. Tables are designed to provide 17½ inches of arm room for customers, instead of the 15 inches in most restaurants.

“There is nothing done inside this concept that is chance. The attention to detail is second to none,” says Seasons 52 President Stephen Judge.

IN SEASON: Seasons 52 President Stephen Judge: “There is nothing done inside this concept that is chance.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

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.”

Established menus

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]

Darden Restaurants

CEO Clarence Otis

Both Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones were narrower than they had to be in terms of their breadth of appeal, Darden CEO Clarence Otis said in at CIBA World Market’s Consumer Growth Conference last July.

The $1-Billion Question

Darden Restaurants has been looking for a blockbuster to match the billion-dollar annual sales of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. So far, its last three concepts — China Coast, Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones — have failed to deliver.

Chain Sales Locations
Olive Garden $2.8 billion 614
Red Lobster 2.6 billion 680
Smokey Bones* 337 million 126
Bahama Breeze 138 million 23
Seasons 52 40 million 7
* Fiscal year 2006
Source: Darden Restaurants 2006 and 2007 annual reports

Restaurants 1,397
Sales $5.6 billion
Employees 157,000
Meals Served 350 million
Source: Form 10-K for fiscal year ended May 27, 2007, as filed by
Darden Restaurants with the Securities and Exchange Commission

Shareholder Return

Joe Lee, former CEO of Darden Restaurants, once told investors he envisioned the company as the blue chip of the restaurant world. Trading at around $42 a share, DRI has outperformed the S&P 500 and its top three competitors over the past 10 years through the end of 2006.

Chain 10-Year Return
Darden 21.9%
Ruby Tuesday 19.8%
Brinker (Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill) 15.7
Applebee's 12.2
S&P 500 8.4
Source: Bloomberg and Research Insights