Darden's Clarence Otis has advice for weathering the economic storm

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Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis shared some tips for surviving the recession in an interview with USA Today. Actually, there was really only one tip, and it isn't all that secret -- it's what I've been telling restaurants for years. If you want to retain customers, whether times are good or bad, focus on service. Guests are willing to forgive a lot -- not everything, but a lot -- if service is the best it can be. I believe there isn't a bad situation that can't be turned around to the satisfaction of the guest with good service. And that doesn't mean just the server, it involves everyone working in concert, from the manager to the greeters to the assistant waiters.

Otis is a pragmatic, bottom-line kind of man, and even though in the interview he steered away from admitting to any big cost-cutting measures, I would be surprised if his restaurants, which include Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze as well as others, aren't putting some into play. He's too smart not to.

But I trust his sincerity on the service issue. I've had many conversations with Otis over the years and he has always stressed the guest experience as a top priority. What I don't understand is why other restaurants don't get it. Providing a stellar dining experience from a service standpoint is one of the easiest -- and cheapest -- things a restaurant can do. Restaurateurs: don't know where to start? The Diners' Bill of Rights is a good beginning.

Here's a link to the full interview with Clarence Otis from USA Today.