Olive Garden’s Board Of Directors Waited Tables To Experience Life As An Employee

ogbreadsticksNot even a year ago, the activist hedge-fund investors at Starboard Value were making headlines with their 300-page report criticizing Olive Garden management for being wasteful with the free breadsticks, overly generous with the salad dressing, and not selling enough booze. Since then, Starboard has ousted board members at Olive Garden parent company Darden Restaurants and replaced them with their own nominees who have ushered in menu changes like turning those breadsticks into sandwiches. In an attempt to ground the new board members’ decisions in the real world, they all got to spend an evening on the foodservice front line.

“Every board member worked inside of a restaurant,” Starboard CEO and Darden Chairman Jeff Smith tells Bloomberg’s Market Makers. “Once we went on the board, every single board member took a night and worked inside of a restaurant.”

Smith says that there was no attempt to pretend that he and his fellow directors were new employees. “Everyone knew” who they were as they got hands-on with customers.

“I was waiting on tables, greeting guests, serving some food, in the kitchen,” he explains. “All of us did that. It was an amazing experience because we felt as board members, ‘How are we going to be able to make good decisions in the board room without really knowing what’s happening inside the restaurants?’”

Smith praised the company’s employees, saying that the staff is “working really hard. They care a lot.”

In addition to Olive Garden, Darden owns a number of other chain eateries, including LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, and Yard House.

Getting into the restaurants to see how things operate is “”about making sure we’re giving them the tools so that they can do the best job succeeding for us, for everyone,” says Smith.

These sorts of in-the-field experiences are not unheard of for top executives. In 2012, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly ended his 27-year break from working retail to spend some time on the sales floors of the electronics chain he’d just taken over.

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