Monday, October 16, 2006

Seasons in the sun

Among the industry’s most-watched new restaurant ventures has been Seasons 52, Darden Restaurants’ attempt to mold an all-fresh restaurant and wine bar into something that could profitably serve the mass market, and aging Baby Boomers in particular. The company has been careful to characterize it as an experiment that might never grow into a sizeable chain. Or at least that’s what it had been saying before today.

The Red Lobster and Olive Garden parent tossed aside that usual caution when Blaine Sweatt, the concept’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, was asked during the MUFSO conference about Seasons 52’s chances of ever become a $1-billion-a-year business. Darden has said it wouldn’t undertake the development of a new chain unless it could reach that threshold. Would this ever be a concept feasible for widescale expansion?

“Are we ready to set the switch [to] ‘on’? Yeah, we’re getting pretty close,” said Sweatt. “Will it be a billion dollar business? Yes. It’s going to be bigger than a billion-dollar business.”

He explained that Darden’s success with the venture would likely prompt other casual-dining companies to develop knock-offs, which would add top-spin to the whole pack’s expansion. Darden would prosper, as would everyone else. But it’s invested the time and effort into nailing the right venture.

Sweatt noted that Darden has opened seven outlets of Seasons 52 in markedly different outlets, to gauge its popularity nationwide. Although he didn’t share details about the brand’s acceptance, the mere mention of that tactic suggests that Darden has liked what it’s learned.

Similarly, Darden is one of the industry’s most cautious players. It doesn’t boast or lightly project success. For Sweatt to speak the way he did,, the company has to be very confident about its chances of succeeding. It’s Darden’s boldest endeavor to date, but undoubtedly the one with which it’s moved most cautiously.

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