Starboard Value is a New York-based investment adviser that "invests in deeply undervalued small cap companies and actively engages with management teams and boards of directors to identify and execute on opportunities to unlock value for the benefit of all shareholders." In other words, this hedge fund is all about maximizing profits and cutting the fat. Or in this case, reducing the amount of unlimited breadsticks.
Recently, it released a close-to-300-page report on Olive Garden's parent company, Darden Restaurants Inc. and was rather vitriolic about the chain's interpretation of "Italian generosity." Conflicting issues like the hippie-like distribution of bread; use of "high-end" materials in their to-go bags and containers; the sale of burgers; and the length of straws, asparagus, and other traditionally long products.
And the real kicker: the stoppage of salting the pasta water.
On page 164 of their report, the firm takes a cheeky tone: "How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?" Seriously, folks, that makes the Italian half of this writer's blood boil a bit. It's the first step of cooking pasta -- the water in your pot should taste like you dipped the pot into the nearest ocean; there should be enough salt in there to calcify your heart valves three times over. Darden defends its "choice" by saying it extends the warranty of its pots.
So, giving a ton of bread away for free is OK, but replacing a damn pot here and there is a big no-no?
The criticisms do not end there either. There are plenty of suggestions concerning the current technologies in place at the restaurants and how simple tweaks can reduce expenses and generate greater financial results. This, of course, is not the kind of bomb the Orlando-based restaurant conglomerate needs now since it recently sold off another underachieving property, Red Lobster.
The pressure keeps rising, with Starboard mounting a full-on hostile campaign of suggestively bettering the product. It's even put in its nominations to replace the current board, bringing back Brad Blum, who was the restaurant's president during a short boom in the '90s (pages 21-22).
The bottom line here is "profits," but boy, isn't it an eye-opener when chain restaurants are revealed to be the callous, empty shells of money-making you suspect them to be. A note on making better Italian dining choices should be to ensure the person manning the kitchen is over the age of 65 and speaks little to no English but will still give you a pomodoro-sweetened kiss on the forehead.
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