Exterior of an Olive Garden restaurant.

Olive Garden

In the week ending December 13, off-premises mixed 36.8 percent at Olive Garden units.

Darden CEO: Curbside Will Be Faster than Drive-Thru

Restaurants are leveraging tech and brand equity to combat competition.

Darden CEO Gene Lee is so proud of Olive Garden’s curbside business that he’d put it up against the best drive-thrus the quick-service industry has to offer.

The business is driving changes to existing buildings and prototypes. For example, Darden will have dedicated parking spots on the sides of buildings that are closer to the kitchen. This will prevent servers from moving food through the lobby to the front door. And from a cost standpoint, it won’t have to be consumer acceptable. This means Olive Garden won’t have to create a presentable takeout area inside restaurants, which come with a lot of costs. With the new model, restaurants won’t have consumers coming inside, either.

Lee said restaurants have become proficient with new technology, and he thinks stores can improve even further in the next few years with geo fencing and other measures that allow operators to know when consumers reach the parking lot. He added Darden is scoring better with timing and accuracy than it ever has.

“I believe this off-premises experience, especially at Olive Garden, when you use the technology, we’ll be quicker than going through a drive-thru at fast food,” Lee said Monday at the ICR Conference. “We’re getting this down to where you could be in our parking lot, and in under a minute, we could have your food in your car and you’re gone.”

He noted that currently, curbside wait times are under 90 seconds, assuming the customer shows up at the scheduled time. Looking ahead to post-pandemic times when dine-in returns to full strength, Lee said operators will have to leverage technology to slot in those off-premises orders and have an even flow.


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“That’s the beauty of our IT team is that we’re able to do that type of stuff, and we’re there,” Lee said. “We’re throttling orders to ensure that we have people showing up at the right time and we’re able to fulfill and handle that demand.”

Olive Garden’s target is for off-premises to land at around 20 percent in a post-pandemic world, but Lee prefaced that by saying it will depend on consumers’ demand for convenience and also how they define convenience when that new era comes. Regardless, the CEO said the brand now has the capability.

In the week ending December 13, off-premises mixed 36.8 percent at Olive Garden units with open dining rooms and 23.5 percent at LongHorn stores with open dining rooms.

As for virtual brands, Lee is on the record saying the trend is a "distraction."

Considering Lee’s thoughts on the matter, an interesting hypothetical was posed during his fireside chat at the virtual conference. What if a chain managed to launch a delivery-only concept that competed directly with Olive Garden or another Darden brand, with price points that were as aggressive or more aggressive than Darden?

Lee’s answer was as staunch as his previous responses. According to the CEO, brand recognition matters, and “you can’t just create a brand out of thin air and compete effectively against a brand that has 30 years of history that’s been spending $150 million in advertising.” To prove his point, he said all you have to do is look back at the past couple of weeks to see how relevant the Olive Garden brand has been on social media.

“Some of that positive, some of that hasn’t been so positive, but this is a brand that’s going to be very difficult to compete against effectively. We have the scale to match any competitive pricing if someone wanted to do that,” Lee said. “… I think brand is going to matter, and I think quality is going to matter. And I’m confident that we can compete effectively if someone decides to try to get into that game.”

Simply put, Lee doesn’t think off-premises is going to be as sticky as some in the industry are predicting. The Darden leader noted that consumers are telling operators more and more that they’re tired of eating restaurant food in their homes, and they want to get back out and socialize with their friends.

Darden has no interest in small order delivery, but it has provided a service at its upscale restaurants in which it will deliver if the order is at least $75 and placed by 5 p.m. the day before. Right now, the average ordering size is $300, which makes the service worth it, Lee said.

He said Darden knows how hard delivery is. It’s not doing a ton, but it’s enough that the company understands the complexity around it. However, consumer feedback has shown it’s a differentiated experience.

“That’s a different experience than a third-party delivery,” Lee said. “We’re providing service along with that, and I think that really ties back to who we are—we’re a full-service restaurant. And so we try to provide that full service around everything that we do. I really like that service. I think it works really well for Olive Garden. We probably do a lot more of that in the upscale side of the business, which is a good driver and a good additional sales channel for that business.”

LongHorn Steakhouse

Darden reported in December that same-store sales were down 36.9 percent in the week ending December 13, including a 32.6 percent drop at Olive Garden and a 23.3 percent slide at LongHorn.

Future Unit Growth

Lee said that once April hit and Darden fortified its liquidity, he knew the company would get to the other side with little issues. The industry isn’t there yet, but the Darden leader said his restaurants will be ready when it does.

Darden is preparing for an environment that will see fewer units sharing pent up consumer demand, and the full-service company plans to capitalize on the opportunity. Although some of those opportunities are taking longer to pan out than anticipated. Lee said Darden is seeing better deals on the fringe, but for the most part, the real estate market hasn’t weakened yet; he estimates another 12 months for that to truly occur.

He added that as restaurant level returns increase significantly to what Darden expects them to be post-pandemic, the company feels it can penetrate into some smaller markets and handle the cannibalization that comes from adding that restaurant.

To return to 2 to 3 percent annual unit growth, Lee said Darden will need a big contribution from Olive Garden. Additionally, LongHorn Steakhouse is expected to be the largest growth driver in the next handful of years, along with Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen and Yard House. For LongHorn in particular, California and Texas are the “new frontier.” Darden recently opened its first LongHorn in California, but had to close it due to the pandemic. There aren’t many insights yet, but the store has done well in off-premises.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we can make those markets work in a post-pandemic world,” Lee said. “When you look at our penetration per capita versus our other steakhouse competitors, we’re a leader in relative market share in those marketplaces. So yes, there’s still a lot of backfill that we can do, but the real unit growth comes from growing Texas out to look like that Olive Garden footprint and growing California out to look like an Olive Garden or even an Outback footprint in California.”

Darden reported in December that same-store sales were down 36.9 percent in the week ending December 13, including a 32.6 percent drop at Olive Garden and a 23.3 percent slide at LongHorn.

At the end of Q2 (November 29), Darden owned 874 company-operated Olive Garden stores and 527 LongHorn stores. The company opened 19 net new restaurants in the quarter.

Expectations for Biden Administration

Lee said the primary pieces of legislation the restaurant industry will have to deal with are the $15 minimum wage and elimination of the tip credit.

President-elect Joe Biden’s administration has previously said it plans to back both measures once he takes office on January 20.

The Darden CEO said restaurants would see some wage pressure with a potential $15 minimum wage, but he thinks the industry in general can handle those pressures.

“In this kind of environment, I’m not so sure how we can deal with that in the short term,” Lee said. “How can we put more pressure on businesses by raising minimum wage this year in the short term? I think it’s more of a mid-term thing that we’re going to have to deal with. But Darden, we’re situated in a position to better handle that than most.”

Regarding the elimination of the tip credit, Lee said it’s a rule that politicians and activists want to make, but neither the consumer or employee want the relationship to change. The CEO added that it’s hard to communicate that because it’s not a good “bumper sticker,” whereas the activists and politicians can say “$2.13 is not a fair wage.”

Lee said an average Olive Garden server makes somewhere between $16 and $17 per hour and a serve at Capital Grille makes well over $40 per hour.

The Darden CEO referenced Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s strategy of increasing menu prices and eliminating tipping. Union Square decided to return to tipping in July after instituting the no tipping policy back in 2015.

Lee said both employees and consumers pushed back at the no tipping strategy and that “we’re trying to solve a problem that really doesn’t exist, and that usually is not a good thing.”

“No one’s making $2.13, but we need more than a bumper sticker to communicate that, and that becomes very hard for us to do,” Lee said. “I’m hoping that we can have the National Restaurant Association and some of the larger chains have conversations with the powers to be and explain how that works. … I think there’s a big misunderstanding out there, and we’re going to have to try to do as much education as we possibly can.”

Darden is currently conducting a test in California where it’s paying a much higher base wage to servers. Lee said the strategy is simple—fewer restaurants per capita allows restaurants to price much higher. The P&L looks different, but the end outcome is more favorable, he noted. 

The CEO said labor availability hasn’t been as strong as he anticipated because human capital has been absorbed into other areas. But he believes that one positive under the Biden administration will be changes to immigration, which should benefit the industry.

“We have the best employment proposition out there. In certain markets we’re going to have to work harder than others, but I think we’re pretty adept at getting our restaurants staffed,” Lee said. “We do a good job with the training, and I’m pretty confident that we can handle what’s ahead of us.”