With value, Olive Garden was building in an everyday strategy (as opposed to deep discounting) well before COVID, with promotional levers ready to go as needed. Its coupon business was roughly 1 percent of sales.
Lee said Olive garden will continue to think more about “the opportunity cost around the value of that table,” when stores are busy. And how not to have people sitting there, paying less than full price.
“Even though it's a value proposition, if we want to revalue and focus on value, we don't want to be discounting off of a value platform,” Lee said. “And I think that's really important. And so, we got to figure that out once we get there. We've got contingency plans right now. We think we know we want to do, but we need to see what the competitive environment is, and we need to see what the economic backdrop is.”
This past quarter, Darden’s No. 1 priority was staffing, COO Rick Cardenas said. It launched a talent acquisition system that helps increase the pool of candidates by allowing applicants to apply and schedule interviews in five minutes or less. Darden ramped up social media efforts and netted more than 1,000 new employees per week. It’s currently at about 90 percent of pre-COVID marks, Cardenas said.
However, labor today is a more nuanced task than building rosters. Darden’s biggest operational challenge of late has been the temporary exclusion of employees identified through contact tracing, Cardenas said.
“Given our commitment to health and safety, we are diligent about exclusions, but they create sudden staffing disruptions for our operators,” Cardenas said.
Darden can be appropriately staffed in the majority of restaurants, as it nearly is, and still face significant shortages on any given night. These exclusions, Cardenas said, reduce the number of available workers “with little notice for our operators to prepare.”
“This volatility can negatively impact sales in these restaurants for the duration of the exclusion period,” he said. “Getting and staying staffed also requires a strong focus on training. As we continue to hire, it is critical that we have the right training in place to ensure we continue to execute at a high level.”
For Olive Garden specifically, Lee guessed there’s one or two sections closed “in most of our restaurants, most nights.” That’s somewhere in the ballpark of 60 tables. It simply puts a cap on what the brand can do, sales wise, until things improve.
“All of sudden, you’re seven people short for the night. You’ve got to adapt and try to overcome those challenges,” Lee said. “…Where we're at right now, we are doing some things off-premises without discounting. And on the weekends, we have to throttle the off-premises business. In other words, we've got to control how many orders we do every 15 minutes.”
Lee said he believes the labor shortage is a national problem, not a restaurant one. It’s flashing among vendors, too. “So I do think we think about the restaurant proposition, I think we have to all understand what do restaurant team members want? I mean, they want an opportunity to be able to work in an environment that is well run. They want flexibility. They want growth, depending on what they're using the job for. And a lot of restaurant jobs are pass-through. They're kind of, let's get from point A to point B. And I think we have to continue to find ways to improve that proposition.”
In the last three of four months, Darden moved roughly 500 employees from the hourly ranks to management.
“Those who have resources that can create employment proposition that's stronger than others will attract people,” Lee said. “There's no doubt that I think that we're in a lot better shape than others with labor at this point in time. I think it's going to come down to an individual situation, which company and, more importantly, it gets down to the restaurant manager, the GM, and inside each of that box, can they create an environment where people want to work? And that's how we'll attract people.”
Darden paused new initiatives in Q1 to “further eliminate distractions” for employees and allow them to focus on what it takes to run 14 great shifts a week, Cardenas said. Olive Garden is sticking to a limited menu Lee noted is not impacting sales at all. “As far as independents adding menu items, more power to them if they think that's what's going to drive their business. Let them make those decisions,” Lee said. “We're very comfortable where we are with our menus at this point in time.”
Olive Garden added Apple Pay and Google Pay to its website and already had PayPal in place. These digital wallets account for more than 25 percent of mobile app transactions. Darden also updated the “Curbside I’m Here” function and will soon layer in geofencing. It recently started testing online recommendations for items.
“Will we lead the restaurant industry? No, the quick service players are going to probably spend more and do more things in technology, but we're going to learn what they're doing and see what we can bring to our space,” Cardenas said. “But we are going to lead the full-service restaurant space in technology for guest facing.”
None of this will slow Olive Garden’s growth. Lee said the brand could get to more than 1,000 stores “fairly easily.” And if it can maintain more than 20 percent off-premises sales, additional trade areas will open up.