June 25 2012

Politics and Food Do Not Mix

Julie Gunlock

Over the weekend, I wrote a piece for NRO about an experience my family and I had at our local IHOP.  In a nutshell, my three children were handed placemats covered in political propaganda.  It rather put us off our pancakes. We ate quickly and left, and we won’t be returning anytime soon.

With more regularity, restaurants are pushing left-leaning political messages and that’s fine if that’s the way the owners of these restaurants choose to operate their businesses. They are free to do whatever they want and I’m free to choose to eat elsewhere.

Oh, how I love the free market.

And others might be doing the same.  In an interesting news story that emerged this weekend, Darden Restaurants Inc. -- the corporation that operates Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and other popular chain restaurants – is struggling to bring in customers.  Darden has blamed the loss of business on the fact that the restaurant has failed to lower costs or offer the customer value meals and specials like two-for-one deals, which have proven especially popular during the recession.

What Darden isn’t talking about (nor is the mainstream media) is that this drop in sales corresponds with Darden’s headline making move last September when Darden’s CEO Clarence Otis, Jr. stood with the First Lady and announced major menu changes to satisfy the Obama administration.  Speaking at an Olive Garden in Hyattsville, Maryland, Otis vowed to overhaul its menu and reduce calories and sodium by 20 percent.  Otis also vowed to offer “healthier” kids meals.

Presciently, Mrs. Obama said at the time that “Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before.” She’s right! Most restaurants don’t actively try to put themselves out of business by advertising their plans to make their food taste worse.  Mrs. Obama also proudly declared that Darden was “looking at all the food they serve, and they’re asking themselves one simple question: How can we improve the health of American families?”

Hmmm…one wonders if at any point during this display if any of Darden’s shareholders considered if it’s the proper role of a business (particularly a restaurant) to only consider improving the health of Americans.  It seems to me that a CEO’s priority should be to ensure paying customers are coming through the doors so that the company can continue to employ people and grow at a reasonable rate each year.  The CEO might also concentrate on food quality and satisfying what the customer demands instead of satisfying a particular politician's regulatory interests.

Let’s not forget: Darden runs restaurants known for their “never-ending pasta bowls,” grilled steaks and all-you-can-eat seafood feasts.  One doubts people head to these restaurants for spa food or a nice tossed salad (hold the dressing!).

Darden should get back to doing what it does best—feeding families who occasionally treat themselves to a night out.  It’s best not to condescend to one’s customers by suggesting they can’t make their own food decisions.  In fact, maybe Darden should save itself some time and energy revamping their menus.  Just get rid of the politics and the willingness to bend toward government pressure. Something tells me your sales will improve.

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