As Darden pushed the integration process forward, Lee said, Cheddar’s lost focus on basic operating fundamentals. In response, Darden suspended marketing and promotional activities even though it was rolling over a heavy period of incentives the year prior to, and immediately after, Darden closed the acquisition. That kind of decision is probably one a smaller restaurant group doesn’t make. But Darden’s overall performance is steady enough to play the long-term game when others are moving checkers pieces around the board.
Cheddar’s units weren’t fully staffed. Scheduling was a mess. These are major concerns for any chain, but definitely for a company that hangs its hat on adding labor instead of pulling it out when complications arise. Lee once said brands that can “hire, train, and retain frontline employees to bring their brands to life are going to win.” He added, “the dynamics inside the industry are changing dramatically. And I think that's where we're focused and that's where I think the winners will be focused—on how do they continue to invest in their team members and how to ensure you're properly staffed to execute against this increased demand.”
So this was an issue gnawing at Darden’s management since it was such a departure from the norm.
They’ve come a long way. For the first time, Lee said, Cheddar’s manager and training pipeline is now on par with its other brands (Olive Garden, LongHorn, Seasons 52, Yard House, Bahama Breeze, Eddie V’s, and The Capital Grill). This addresses another serious setback in the integration process: turnover. Lee said nearly 100 percent of Cheddar’s units finally have a general manager or managing partner. Previously, the brand didn’t even have a certified trainer program. The basic goal of having every hired employee go through a solid platform wasn’t there.