A Deeper Dive Into the Murky Future of Red Lobster and Darden

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A Red Lobster seafood casual dining chain restaurant.
Alamy
Darden's (DRI) bout with financial indigestion continues.

The casual dining operator behind the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains disappointed the market again with a lackluster earnings report on Thursday morning. Its gloomy outlook also finds it willing to spin off or unload the struggling Red Lobster concept. Olive Garden better not get too comfortable, either.

The Black Sheep at the Table

Darden runs several successful eateries outside of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Eddie V.'s, and Yard House all posted positive same-restaurant sales growth in the fiscal second quarter that ended in late November. The problem is that they all add up to just 30 percent of Darden's sales. Red Lobster and Olive Garden continue to serve up more than two thirds of the company's business, and both chains are struggling.

For the second quarter in a row this fiscal year we find Olive Garden and Red Lobster falling short in attracting hungry patrons. Same-restaurant sales slipped 0.6 percent at Olive Garden and 4.5 percent at Red Lobster.

Things were actually even worse than those numbers suggest because of the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday this year. This is typically a slow time of year for the casual dining industry as families carve up Thanksgiving feasts that wind up lasting for days. But since Thanksgiving took place after the Nov. 24 close of Darden's fiscal second quarter, the softness from last year's period didn't carry over this time around.

Spoiler alert: Darden's fiscal third quarter is going to be even uglier because it'll include that soft Thanksgiving period.

Better Load Up on Bread Sticks While You Can

Red Lobster has been the biggest laggard for Darden, and the company has just about had enough of the 705-unit seafood chain. Darden plans to spin off Red Lobster as a standalone public company. It may also consider a sale of the chain, but there isn't likely to be a lot of excitement for the worst performer of the company's eight concepts.

The transaction won't happen right away. Darden is pointing to next summer as its target for the separation at the earliest.

However, it won't just be Red Lobster feeling the pinch. Darden also announced on Thursday that it will not open any more Olive Garden restaurants in the near term, also scaling back the expansion of its smaller more successful chains.

Slowing its build-out will naturally help preserve its money. Darden expects to reduce annual capital expenditures by $100 million, and the $50 million in annual cost savings that it announced earlier this year will now be closer to $60 million as it redirects its marketing efforts.

'Told You So'

Red Lobster and Olive Garden have seen better days, but at least one big investor thinks that Darden could be doing a better job for its shareholders. Armed with a better than 2 percent stake, Barington Capital has rolled out a plan that it believes could propel the stock as high as $80.

Spinning off Red Lobster is something that it was arguing for before Thursday's announcement, though Barington also wanted Olive Garden to be included in the move. It feels that investors would be willing to pay higher market multiples for a holding company with the six smaller eateries.

Barington also thinks that Darden could shave more in costs beyond the $50 million to $60 million that it's been targeting, and Darden's plan to scale back on new openings should help appease the investment firm.

However, Barington is also asking for Darden to discount less and spend less on marketing. That could be losing gamble. Red Lobster sales are already in a funk. How would advertising less and charging more help?

In fact, the folks dining at Red Lobster are already spending more than they did a year ago, and that could be part of the problem. Actual traffic at Red Lobster fell by 7.3 percent last month and a brutal 9.9 percent in October.

You can't succeed in the current climate as a casual dining operator if you're not discounting aggressively and effectively getting the word out.

Darden knows that the future will be a challenge. A few months ago, it predicted that it could crank out positive comps in fiscal 2014. Now it foresees negative same-restaurant sales for the combination of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn. With Darden in preservation mode, it doesn't seem likely that Red Lobster of Olive Garden will be mounting a turnaround anytime soon.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Darden Restaurants. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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8 Comments

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legaltweety

I used to really like Johnny Carino's. They changed their cooks and it went down the toilet. They just closed. Too bad. It was great when it started. When they start cutting corners, they can't compete anymore.

January 10 2014 at 12:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
legaltweety

I don't eat fish or seafood so I eat appetizers, salad and a baked potato. I love their biscuits. Even in the middle of the week Red Lobster is busy. We went about 5 and they were already full.

January 10 2014 at 12:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
legaltweety

We went to Red Lobster on a Tuesday night and they were packed. They need to bring back their fried zucchini, though. I don't know anybody else who has it and it's delicious.

January 10 2014 at 12:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
*Wutz ^ Jessy*

Restaurants and just about any food eatery these days are getting very expense for the food they serve. Better stay home and will save you money and some unwanted indigestion.

December 22 2013 at 7:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
casinobev

I WILL NEVER EAT AT OLIVE GARDEN AGAIN THE SALAD WAS LIKE IT CAME OUT OF A BAG DRESSING BLAND WILTED LETTUCE AND DRY BREAD STIX. NO WONDER YOUR NOT CROWDED ANY MORE

December 22 2013 at 8:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mikerat42

As long as Longhorn has rules like " you can't have more than 1drink in front of you at the same time",I will continue to boycott ALL Darden restaurants. I was finishing a cocktail and ordered a beer to have with dinner and was told by the bartender she would have to take my cocktail and return it when the beer was done. Their Home Office said it was Darden "policy".

December 21 2013 at 10:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jeffwalsh

The problem with Red Lobster is IT SUCKS. I love seafood and I always have my worst seafood experiences there. The last few times I went I came away thinking the portions were too small for the cost of the meal. Plus, reasonable requests are given a NO answer. Such as I do not like breaded shrimp, so can I sub that out for more shimp scampi? The answer was NO... which has become my answer to going to Red Lobster. I have learned to cook my seafood at home or hit crab leg buffets instead of going to Red Lobster.

December 20 2013 at 9:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Evi Yuliawati

I am wondering if the restaurant can become an American Seafood Idol someday

http://www.prosperfish.com

December 20 2013 at 4:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
amosbyrd

Poor quality and poor service are killing Red Lobster.
They have too many restaurants to manage and the rotten "apples," are spoiling the rest of them.
The last 2 times I ate at Red Lobster (in 2 different states).
All I got was indigestion and a very high bill.

December 20 2013 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rgonzomatic

Its no wonder... We had 4 large lobsters there recently, and they were so overcooked that the meat was actually brittle. :(

December 20 2013 at 12:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply