By Grace Austin

How does diversity come into play for a company that has made diversity of food essential to its business success? With more than 2,000 locations and 180,000 employees, diversity, it would seem, would be the last concern among the leaders of casual dining pioneer Darden Restaurants. Darden, though, has made diversity an essential aspect of its business—and benefited from it.

Overseeing massively successful and ubiquitous restaurants Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and LongHorn Steakhouses, as well as four other chains, Darden has transformed traditional ethnic and regional food like Italian and New England seafood into food for the masses. The company’s story begins with William Darden, who founded the first Red Lobster in 1968, bringing seafood to inner-Florida. Gradual expansion of the franchise led to almost 400 locations by the mid-’80s. Later the company found success acquiring Olive Garden in 1982 and Bahama Breeze in 1996.

As many companies have proved time and time again, to truly be called a “leader” in its industry, a company needs to embrace fully ideas of sustainability, health and wellness, and corporate philanthropy. And as many know, these ideas often remain just that: ideas that don’t become a part of the company at all. Darden, though, has seemed to embrace these concepts whole-heartedly. When asked about Darden, employees seem proud of their company, something which is uncommon throughout corporate America. And it seems there’s ample reason why they have been awarded titles like one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” and were singled out to partner with Michelle Obama on healthy eating initiatives.

“The reason why I personally work for Darden is because our core values and mission statement have proven to not only apply to how we treat our guests but also how our company values their employees and our community. Darden doesn’t just say they care about us, they also continue to prove that they care. In my career I have been afforded the opportunity to grow within this company. Starting as a server and now being a proud managing partner is not necessarily a common occurrence in the food and beverage industry,” says Lisa Hoggs, managing partner of LongHorn Steakhouse in Akers Mill, Georgia.

Diversity is one of Darden’s most essential programs. Although the company cites “a long history and commitment to diversity and inclusion” Darden has embraced it resolutely within the past ten years. (Which shows, it has been named to nearly every best and top diversity lists for women, Hispanics, people with disabilities, and African Americans.) This is evident by the creation of a VP of Culture and Inclusion position three years ago, which Darden veteran Sylvia Doggett-Jones currently holds.

“We want to be a financial leader in our industry, a social leader. We want Darden to be a special place, and diversity is an essential part of being a special place,” says Doggett-Jones.

Representing the people it serves is important at Darden, as it should be in the food services business, a unique industry where the customer and employees are in close proximity and interaction. Darden counts 42 percent of its workforce as minorities and 52 percent as female, while 40 percent of managers are women and close to 30 percent are minority.

Darden has gone even further, working to provide career opportunities in an industry synonymous with turnover and “just a job” attitudes. Piloting a rollout of employee resource groups to all employees is an example of utilizing an initiative that has long been available strictly to corporate America.

Doggett-Jones uses the restaurants’ menus as an example of their commitment to diversity. “Diversity is shown throughout our restaurants, and even our menus, in terms of knowing we have certain markets with a different demographic, and being sensitive to [that]. We serve 400 million guests a year, and with that, we have a very diverse guest demographic. Whether it’s offering Braille menus to our guests or training materials in Spanish, we accommodate and find ways to serve our guests and employees.”

And diversity does extend to the very top: Clarence Otis Jr., chairman of the board and CEO, is African American. One-third of the C-Suite are women or minorities, a figure that while many would criticize for being too low, is actually higher than most companies. (The latest studies, including a voluntary survey by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, show that minorities represent 14.5 percent of C-Suites, while women fare slightly higher at 18 percent.) And board membership, which traditionally has even lower numbers of minorities and women, is above 35 percent at Darden.

Giving Back

One of the examples of Darden’s recent diversity efforts has been its expansion of partnerships with nonprofits and organizations associated with minority populations. Two-thousand three brought a partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), 2007 support for Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF), and in 2009, the Hispanic College Fund.

“We also feel a responsibility to support diversity and inclusion beyond our restaurant walls through philanthropic programs and our commitment to supplier diversity and local nonprofits,” says Doggett-Jones.

Scholarships and providing support for youth is a major aspect of outreach at Darden, as apparent by their partnerships. This is an aspect of their “Giving Themes” that allow anyone to apply for grants and scholarships that are in tune with Darden-approved themes of higher education, ecological sustainability, and general community benefit.
“When we developed the Restaurant Community Grants program, our nation grappled with a down economy. Local nonprofit organizations were among the hardest hit—starved for funds and deciding whether to close their doors. We took a look at our scale, with 2,000 restaurants across the country, and decided to make a direct impact in the communities we serve,” says Doggett-Jones. “The inaugural year of the Restaurant Community Grants program was met with overwhelming support from our restaurant teams and local communities, and our 2013 plans are already underway.”

And these grants have gone local: any nonprofit in communities where there is a Darden restaurant may apply for an annual award. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Oregon Food Bank have all been recipients.

Sustainability and the Future

Sustainability, a business buzzword of late, has been enthusiastically embraced by Darden. Doggett-Jones notes that millennial employees, who have placed key significance on sustainability, have been crucial in helping the company achieve its goals. Darden is using 17 percent less water and eight percent less energy since it began its sustainable initiative five years ago. Food now travels fewer miles to restaurants, and 28 percent of waste from food has been diverted from landfills.

Darden has also recently announced plans to raise spiny lobster through aquaculture, a move applauded for its business investment and sustainability. Darden has also given money to Atlantic Lobster and Gulf fisheries to help conserve and grow their populations.

Even nutrition, another paramount issue in the U.S. right now, has been fully incorporated into their new efforts, with importance placed on reducing sodium and caloric intake while “enhancing [the] nutrition of children’s menus.” These are coupled with efforts towards nutritional transparency and lower calorie meals.

There are fields where Darden could afford to grow. Diverse suppliers account to a little over 10 percent of all suppliers, a figure that while not low, could stand to be higher. There have also been issues with current and former employee lawsuits. In early September Darden was accused of violating federal labor laws by underpaying workers.

Says a Darden representative of the claims, “We believe the recent claims of wage and hour violations made against our company are baseless and they fly in the face of our values and how we operate our business. We value our employees and are proud to offer them competitive compensation and benefits and the opportunity to grow within our company.”

But there are always bright spots: more than a quarter of their seafood suppliers are minority, and one of the largest, Red Chambers Co., is Asian American-owned. And these numbers are expected to grow—Darden has both acknowledged and made commitments to improvement.

Despite any issues at Darden, from a basic business point of view the company is doing well. Opening new restaurants and consistently acquiring new restaurant chains, Darden’s growth is impressive in a recovering economy. And, despite these problems, they back up any commitments with metrically-enhanced goals and support for philanthropic and community efforts.

“The restaurant industry is a diverse industry, there’s no doubt about that. But when you start to look at the various talent segments within, that’s where you can see the difference,” says Doggett-Jones. “Diversity is a differentiator for us.”