What is in this article?:
- Darden latest restaurant company targeted by activist investor
- Parts and parcels
The Orlando, Fla.-based company recently held meetings with hedge fund Barington Capital Group LP.
Darden Restaurants Inc. is the latest publicly traded restaurant company to field calls from shareholders to spin off or sell major parts of its business — just days after reporting a “surprisingly weak” first quarter and announcing layoffs and cost-cutting initiatives.
The Orlando, Fla.-based parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and a “specialty” group of high-growth casual-dining brands recently held meetings with hedge fund Barington Capital Group LP, a firm that has suggested publicly that Darden split itself into two companies.
Barington, which reportedly owns a 2.8-percent stake in Darden, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal calling for the company to spin off its flagship Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, which have performed erratically over the past year, into a separate company. The remaining entity would consist of the better-performing LongHorn Steakhouse and the five chains in Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group: Bahama Breeze, Eddie V’s Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52 and Yard House.
Darden’s director of communications, Rich Jeffers, wrote in an email that Darden welcomed Barington’s input about how the company could enhance shareholder value. “The board [of directors] will take the time necessary to thoroughly evaluate Barington’s suggestions, just as the company does for any of its shareholders,” he wrote.
Before Barington’s proposals were reported this past week, Darden announced that it would eliminate 85 jobs at its corporate headquarters and implement other cost-cutting initiatives. The company aims to save $50 million per year in annual general and administrative expenses beginning fiscal 2015. At the same time, president and chief operating officer Drew Madsen announced his retirement, which will take effect at the end of Darden’s second quarter in November.
Darden also reported that fiscal first quarter same-store sales fell 4 percent at Olive Garden and 5.2 percent at Red Lobster. LongHorn’s same-store sales rose 3.2 percent in the first quarter, while the Specialty Restaurant Group’s collective comparable sales rose 0.5 percent.
Of all of Darden’s brands, its two largest concepts, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, have had the most erratic performance in the past year. While same-store sales had risen slightly to 1.1 percent at Olive Garden and 3.2 percent at Red Lobster in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2013, annual same-store sales at those chains decreased 1.1 percent and 2.2 percent for the full year.
Darden leaders said those two brands’ heavy focus on value advertising would be the norm going forward, in an effort to increase restaurant traffic, even at the risk of profit margins.
In the first quarter following that disclosure, Olive Garden achieved its sales targets with the three-course Italian dinner for $12.95 promotion in June and the Never Ending Pasta Bowl in August, but the brand’s “two Italian dinners for $25” offer fell below expectations for traffic, officials said. Similarly at Red Lobster, the Endless Shrimp promotion in August met expectations, but the June and July offers of Seaside Mix & Match and the Four Course Seafood Feast, respectively, did not.