At the helm of this quiet giant is the 53-year-old son of a janitor from Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood that made headlines for riots in 1965. "You hear people in the restaurant industry say, 'I have a feel for the business,' " says CEO Clarence Otis. He's not one of those people. "On the continuum of intuitive restaurants versus systematized, analytic restaurants, we're very analytic," he says. "The direction of our business is based on understanding customers."
Darden turned to research. "The key consumer insight was that people missed the emotional comfort and connectivity that comes with family," says chief operating officer Drew Madsen, then the chain's head of marketing. "People come to a restaurant for both physical and emotional nourishment. The physical is the food; and the emotional is how you feel when you leave."
My family used to like these restaurants, before we became really focused on eating healthy. But even then, we hardly ever ate out. I and both of my parents are willing and able to cook good homemade food, so we simply do not need or want restaurants most of the time.
As attitudes changed, the test kitchens took on the preparation challenge; risotto requires 20 minutes to cook, longer than customers are willing to wait.
Restaurant speed has changed a lot in the past couple of decades. Everything is so much faster. It makes economic sense, of course. Not only do people demand it, but the faster you can get people in and out the more people you can serve and the more money you can make. But something has been lost when people are unwilling to wait 20 minutes in a nice environment. The 'slow food' people do have a point.
This summer, she's launching another project to share wait times across restaurants so that a hostess can steer customers to nearby Darden establishments that aren't as busy. The next logical step, White says, would be to give customers online access to that information.
I predict that this will boost their restaurant profitability far more then they expect, especially if they provide historical minute-by-minute graphs of wait time. People will go to their site and find the best time and place to eat,and this will spread out arrival times and make everything run more smoothly.