Darden Restaurants announced that its Board of Directors has appointed current interim CEO Eugene I. Lee, Jr. as CEO and director, effective immediately.

“After conducting a thorough search and reviewing numerous qualified candidates, it was clear that Gene was the best candidate and was the Board's unanimous choice,” says Jeffrey C. Smith, Darden's independent non-executive chairman. "Gene brings the perfect combination of restaurant-level operating experience, brand and corporate-level management expertise, and thoughtful, focused, hands-on leadership."

Mr. Lee brings more than 30 years of restaurant operating experience to the role, which ranges from early stage high-growth concepts to large high volume chains.

"As president and COO, and then as interim CEO of Darden, I fully appreciate the possibilities of an improved and reinvigorated Darden,” Lee says. “I believe Darden has a fantastic future and look forward to continuing to work with Darden's talented employee base in our collective effort to return Darden to the pinnacle of full service dining."

Prior to his appointment as Interim CEO, Mr. Lee served as President and Chief Operating Officer of the Company for one year, and as president of the company's Specialty Restaurant Group (SRG) for six years. Under Mr. Lee's leadership, SRG grew from 60 to 175 restaurants while delivering annualized sales growth of 17 percent and annual restaurant earnings growth of 26 percent. 

Mr. Lee joined Darden in 2007 as part of its acquisition of RARE Hospitality International, where Mr. Lee served as president and Chief Operating Officer.

Darden will turn to its search for the next CFO to succeed C. Bradford Richmond upon his retirement, which will include both external and internal candidates.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News