Unlimited pushback. Darden Restaurants’ CEO Gene Lee just won the annual “Golden Chain Award” from trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News—and some people are pissed. On Wednesday, a group of 15 environmental, animal welfare and worker justice organizations published an open letter in protest, decrying the company, which operates a suite of “casual dining” chains including Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and The Capital Grille.
“While at the helm of Darden Restaurants, Mr. Lee has failed to show excellence in leadership in terms of improving conditions for employees, protecting the environment, fostering humane treatment of farm animals, or promoting the health of Darden Restaurants’ customers,” write the signees, including the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Animal Welfare Institute, and Friends of the Earth. In theory, the Golden Chain recognizes companies for general excellence and “a dedication to giving back.”
The restaurant industry as a whole is notorious for skimping on worker benefits—but even in that context, Darden stands out. As we reported earlier this year, the company offers no paid sick or emergency leave; instead, it uses a voluntary employee donation program, “Darden Dimes,” to supply emergency grants in times of need. That leaves employees covering one another with spare change from their paychecks, while Darden actively promotes the program as evidence of its own good deeds. Lee, on the other hand, received a 46 percent boost in salary—to $6.14 million—in 2016.
Still, it’s unclear why the coalition has singled out Darden and Lee, when the year’s other Golden Chain awardees embrace similar practices, including the CEO of Arby’s and the CEO of Flynn Restaurant Group (FRG), the largest owner of hundreds of Applebee’s franchises. When asked to name FRG’s biggest challenge in his celebratory interview with Nation’s Restaurant News, Michael Flynn replied: “Labor, labor and labor. It’s astounding how quickly the minimum wage, and therefore sort of all wage rates, is rising across the country…It’s going to be very disruptive and very transformative, and poses our biggest challenge.” (His solution? Lay off the workers, and bring on the robots.)
In sum: the trade food press continues to prioritize profit above all else, and Olive Garden’s reluctance to pay workers is like its breadstick bowl: bottomless.