Feeding Darden -- New Corporate Headquarters's Employee Dining Room Not What You'd Expect

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Let’s say you’re the largest full-service dining restaurant company in the world, a Fortune 500 operation. And you move your headquarters, let’s call it the Restaurant Support Center, into a massive, state-of-the-arts building that allows you to house all 1,300 support center employees under one roof, instead of the 12 roofs you’ve operated under in the past.

And this new building allows you for the first time to offer an employee cafeteria -- after all, with over 1,700 restaurants throughout North America, you’re in the business of feeding people. So, which of your six brands do you choose for the in-house restaurant? Do you go with Red Lobster, the concept that started the company, or with The Olive Garden and its popular Italian comfort foods? Or maybe you use the two steakhouse brands -- Longhorn for the masses and Capital Grille for the executive dining room. Bahama Breeze could offer a playful atmosphere, a calypso break from the workday. And Seasons 52 would encourage your employees to eat more healthfully. Or you could offer a food court with all the concepts and let the workers decide.

The answer for the employee restaurant at Darden’s brand-spanking-new Restaurant Support Center? Guckenheimer.

Huh?

Instead of doing the food for the employee cafeteria themselves, the Darden folks opted to contract with an outside foodservice company to handle the task. Why? “This isn’t what we do,” said Darden chairman and chief executive officer Clarence Otis. Industrial foodservice and banquet style dining has never been a part of the Darden portfolio.

So they turned to Guckenheimer (pronounced GOOK-en-hi-mer), a company out of northern California, to run the employee cafeteria. Guckenheimer specializes in institutional feeding. You may be more familiar with companies like Aramark or Saga Dining Services. Guckenheimer has five regional offices but none in the southeast.

The food area at the Darden RSC looks like one you might find at a typical college, except a bit more polished and upscale. There is a free-standing area that specializes in pizzas, cooked in a brick oven, and where a server tosses fresh salads like spinach with bacon and eggs. Along the back wall are stations that might remind you of vendors in a food court at the mall. Step up to one counter if you’d like rotisserie chicken, another if you want a deli-style sandwich.

Otis and I opted for the station that was featuring arroz con pollo, served from bowls atop heated granite slabs. Employees -- and guests -- carry their selections on trays to a central pay station, then continue to the dining area for utensils and napkins and free drinks from a bank of dispensers along one wall.

Otis had been showing me around the new place with the pride of a new homeowner. Otis became chairman and CEO of the company in 2004 but had been with the company for nine years at that point. He told me that all the senior management had been wanting to move the operations to a new building for years. But his predecessor, Joe Lee, didn’t want to move. When Otis took the helm, he started the process to have the building designed and built on a parcel of land abutting a preserve off John Young Parkway just south of the Beachline (SR 528). The Darden corporation sold its main building on Oak Ridge Road, west of Orange Blossom Trail -- at the height of the real estate boom, thank you very much -- and leased the space back while the new digs were under construction.

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The Darden RSC Main Street. The employee dining room is on the left.
The new RSC is a marvel. It was designed to achieve gold certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in New Construction (NC), making it the largest LEED gold NC building in Florida. Its hallmark is wide, open spaces that flood with natural light. From the modest entryway, visitors enter a long, three-story-high and very wide hallway. “This is what we call Main Street,” said Otis. Stairways are central; elevators are hidden away.

Each floor looks out onto Main Street, but beyond the primary thoroughfare are warrens of offices and cubicles that seemingly go on forever. It’s difficult to tell one floor from another, and indeed during the tour Otis had to stop and think about where he was and how to get where he wanted to go.

His own office, on the third level, is modest by Fortune 500 standards. No, it’s modest by startup standards. His office is not large, holding only a desk, chair and other mundane office accouterments -- no room for a comfy couch or conference table as you might expect. Technically, it’s a corner office, but it’s on the inside crook of the building. Who, I wondered, had the offices at the other end of the wing, the ones with an outside corner. “I don’t know!” he said with his trademark explosive laugh. “I guess I’ll have to find out sometime.” (They’re conference rooms, it turns out.)

One of the best views in the headquarters, a panorama of the preserve, is afforded people exercising on treadmills in the company fitness center, operated by Florida Hospitals, which also runs the onsite Wellness Center.

But the best feature of the new facility from a culinary standpoint is the series of kitchens -- one for each brand -- lined up next to each other, each one set behind a small conference room just off Main Street on the first floor. The kitchens are set up as they would be at a Red Lobster or a Bahama Breeze. But the proximity allows the chefs from each brand to collaborate and share ideas. A salad developed for the Olive Garden restaurants, said Otis, could be a really good salad but might not be accepted because Olive Garden regulars like the signature salad. So the Olive Garden chefs might offer the idea to one of the other restaurants’ chefs. Before the move, in October, the corporate chefs were spread over a two-mile radius among the various buildings that comprised the RSC network.

So, I wondered, now that it has been built and everyone has moved in, what does Joe Lee think? He hasn’t seen it yet, said Otis. (Mary Darden, whose husband, Bill, started the company with a single restaurant that became the Red Lobster concept, has visited several times.)

And what about our lunch? Arroz con pollo means rice with chicken, of course, and technically that’s what it was -- a sort of yellow rice with black beans and an occasional green pea topped with sliced chicken breast. Not the arroz con pollo you’d find in a Cuban restaurant, but perfectly acceptable, especially as employee cafeteria fare goes.

I wondered what we might expect new from Darden -- there’s plenty of room to add new workers for new concepts. Aside from saying the company plans to expand more into the California market, where they are underrepresented, the only clue I got from Otis for something new was while we were in Guckenheimer’s food court area. It was just after he explained that they hired an outside company because institutional foodservice isn’t what Darden does. Now that they’d had a chance to watch the operation, he said, “I think we could do this.”

Cant’ wait to see the Darden Foodservice cafeteria in the Guckenheimer headquarters.

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