Darden executive: Restaurant workers not underpaid or unhappy

September 19, 2013 

A recently published opinion piece (”Waiters aren’t being well served,” Sept. 13, 2013) does not paint the true picture of the restaurant industry or my company, Darden Restaurants. The accessibility of the American Dream may be in question in our country as a whole, but it is alive and well in the restaurant industry and is a passion and mission for us here at Darden.

We understand that being a large, high-profile organization makes us an easy target for mistruths and narrow storytelling, especially with continuing levels of unemployment and stagnant hiring trends in other sectors of the American economy. However, any accusations that we do not pay employees fairly are completely false. We take these allegations seriously and view these rumors as being detrimental to the employees who we are working so hard to help achieve their personal and professional dreams.

For starters, no one makes $2.13 an hour. It is a popular exaggeration and terribly misleading.

Across all eight of our restaurant concepts, the average income for hourly employees ranges from $13 to $21 per hour. On top of that, many of our employees, including servers, bartenders and certain culinary positions, make even more. The hourly income of our bussers, which is often an entry-level job, is more than $11 an hour. That is well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

To take this a step further, opportunities with our company extend far beyond hourly jobs. We have more than 8,000 leadership positions in our restaurants, and we pride ourselves on rewarding individuals from within.

More than 50 percent of our restaurant managers are promoted from hourly ranks and nearly 100 percent of our General Managers/Managing Partners are internal promotions. Darden provides our employees a well-trodden path from an entry-level hourly position, with or without a college degree, to leadership roles.

We know we need to attract and retain the best workforce possible for long-term success. All our recent employee surveys — conducted through a third party — show that our overall employee engagement score significantly outpaces our industry. I am also proud that we have been named to the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” list three years in a row.

Our employees’ reaction to their experiences at Darden is also evident in the fact that we boast one of the lowest annual turnover rates in the industry, with double-digit differences comparatively.

We understand we are not perfect — and we are always looking to get better. All we ask is that our critics make an effort to learn and understand the entire story instead of simply bending numbers and using half-truths.

Samir Gupte is senior vice president of culture for Darden Restaurants, which owns several franchises including Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

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