Sunday, September 27, 2009

A new concept headed for Darden's menu?

Is Darden considering an addition to its restaurant empire?

The parent of Red Lobster is moving this Wednesday into new headquarters elsewhere in Orlando, its home turf for the last 40 years, according to an Orlando Sentinel story. Included in the facility, says the article, are six test kitchens and the space to house a seventh. Each will serve a different concept, the piece notes.

In addition to Red Lobster, Darden’s holdings include Olive Garden, Capital Grille, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. Their R&D facilities will be firing up their grills in a few days. But why reserve space for a seventh? Is Darden shopping for an acquisition, or perhaps starting the in-house development of something new?

Setting aside space for expansion is hardly proof an addition is a “go.” It’s more like a young family buying a house with a spare bedroom, just in case.

But the article also notes that Darden has to add 400 positions at the new building by 2014 to earn the full tax benefits of the relocation. That’s on a base of 1,260 jobs currently housed there.

That would be a tremendous amount of organic growth, even if Seasons 52, the company’s youngest concept, really zooms cross-country.

And there’s no shortage of acquisition candidates in this buyer’s market. The last expansion of Darden’s portfolio was the purchase of Rare Hospitality, the parent of Capital Grille and LongHorn.

Speculating on possible additions is tough with Darden. Although the company is very conservative, its new concepts have been downright bold. Few would have bet it’d try a healthful concept featuring fresh, seasonal produce, as it did—undoubtedly with great success—with Seasons 52. Ditto with Bahama Breeze, still one of the industry’s few chained Caribbean concepts.

But who can resist making their wild-haired predictions. If Darden were looking to add concepts, I wonder if a burger concept, an everyday grill sort of place, would be one of types on the list. Ditto for an upscale Mexican place, with bold flavors and simple, even healthful preparations.

So, if you live in Orlando, please give a shout if catch the aroma of chipotles wafting out of the new headquarters.

No comments: