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Dining at Darden

Dining at Darden

One of the world's foremost commercial foodservice firms turns to a noncommercial foodservice specialist to manage its onsite dining needs.

When Darden Restaurants decided to consolidate its support and administrative facilities into a single Restaurant Support Center (RSC) complex several years ago, it faced a decision. What do we do about onsite foodservice?

None of the company's previous facilities had in-house dining, but it was something Darden employees wanted in the new building.

“When we began the design process for our new Restaurant Support Center, the company surveyed employees on what types of amenities they wanted most in our new campus,” says Darden spokesperson Rich Jeffers. “Onsite dining was at the top of the list. In addition to being highly convenient, it gives our employees another way to come together and interact during the work day, which helps build an even greater sense of team.”

All fairly typical issues at most companies, but Darden is not “most companies” in this context. It is a heavyweight in the foodservice business, the largest full-service restaurant company in the world, with more than 1,900 North American unit locations and a brand portfolio that brims with iconic names — Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and Eddie V's.

Under the circumstances, the quality of its onsite foodservice is a big deal, and it would have been understandable if Darden simply used its own brands and menus for the purpose. But it didn't. Instead it decided to outsource operation of onsite dining at the RSC to Guckenheimer, the California-based contract management company that specializes in serving the foodservice needs of corporate clients.

What Guckenheimer brings to the RSC is daily and day-to-day menu variety and high-quality dishes developed by its in-house staff and based on customer preferences and the availability of fresh (and, preferably local and organic) ingredients. There are no attempts to incorporate Darden restaurant concepts into the mix. And that is just how everyone at the facility seems to want it.

“They've let us do our own thing and never tried to tell us what to serve,” says Guckenheimer's site general manager, Rita Behm. “They have their test kitchens just across the way, and they'll come to our kitchen if they need something, and we'll do the same. There's a lot of teamwork and mutual respect.”

In addition to operating the main café, the onsite store and several break areas, Guckenheimer also operates the in-house catering, which must manage events attended by high-powered food industry figures with plenty of culinary savvy in addition to the more ordinary round of breakfast and lunch meetings and company functions.

It has been a fruitful partnership, as Guckenheimer's approach to the onsite dining operation has generated high rates of participation and customer satisfaction, one factor in Darden's landing on Fortune magazine's 2011 “100 Best Companies to Work For” listing, the first full-service restaurant company to earn such a distinction.

Bringing It All Home

Darden's RSC is a gleaming three-story building that opened two years ago near the intersection of Routes 528 and 423 on Orlando's southern outskirts. The largest LEED Gold NC (new construction) building in Florida, it consolidated what had been a checkerboard of about a dozen different locations and 1,300 administrative and support personnel under one roof for the first time in the company's history.

Guckenheimer was brought on board to manage onsite dining about a year before the RSC's opening, but it had minimal input into the facilities, says Guckenheimer Senior Vice President Jack Silk. “We made some minor tweaks to the back of the house but that was it. Darden had looked at various sites and developed a plan of what they wanted. It fit very well with the kind of dining we look to provide in terms of menus written to take advantage of what's fresh and what the client prefers.”

The numbers reflect the company's success. Darden Café generates around 1,100 daily transactions, about 800 at lunch and the rest at breakfast, all while competing with some 50 commercial restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

It's easy to see why it has been so popular. Each day for lunch, customers can choose among three grilled items, two special selections from Market Bistro station and a made-to-order hot entrée or specialty tossed salad, the latter two prepared at two different exhibition stations. There are also at least two fresh soups and a fully stocked salad bar. Scratch prep is the rule, with even the pizza dough made onsite with flour imported from Italy.

Executive Chef Vincent DeVittorio says the Darden population leans toward appreciating “the classics” but also appreciates something new and different such as the roasted butternut squash risotto with wild mushrooms and arugula he served a short time ago. “The whole item was totally vegetarian and sold very well: 80 orders.”

Guckenheimer also manages the company store and several break areas around the complex, which serve complimentary beverages along with snacks like chocolate covered pretzels and dried fruit/nut mixes, as well as fresh fruit.

At a Glance

Darden Restaurant Support Center, Orlando, FL

Site population: 1,300

Foodservice contractor: Guckenheimer

Outlets: 1 full service café, 1 onsite store, 6 break areas

Café hours: 7:30-10 am (breakfast), 11:30 am-2 pm (lunch), 2-3:30 pm (snacks)

Participation (café only): 1,100/day

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