Protesters took to Olive Garden restaurants in six major U.S. cities Thursday to pressure the restaurant's parent chain, Darden Restaurants, to institute higher wages. The organizations behind the protests are also asking the company to reduce its meat and dairy purchasing and to source food "more sustainably."
Darden is currently the country's largest employer of tipped workers, and Olive Garden is the company's largest brand. In a statement released Wednesday, Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), said Darden "could be a leader in advocating for a fair wage for all workers but instead spends millions lobbying to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13."
In 2014, ROC released a report that found the company could pay all of its workers $15 per hour simply by redirecting $.10 of every $5 in sales — or 2 percent of sales — toward employees' salaries.
But according to Darden, the average hourly employee at the company's seven brands earns "nearly $15 an hour today." That's according to Darden's director of communications Rich Jeffers, who says directly tipped employees (70 percent of Darden's workforce) "earn $16 to $20 on average."
"Our industry-leading employee experience really runs very counter to the demands [the protesters] are making," Jeffers told Eater. "Our turnover rates are 30 to 35 points below industry average, when it comes to hourly, tipped workers. We can point to people across our company who have been in those positions 25, 30 years. We're proud of the employee experience we offer and continue to work on it to make it even better."
Darden has not taken an official stance on the issue of raising minimum wages, but according to ROC, the company has long lobbied to keep them stagnant, while the compensation of the Darden's chief executive officer has risen by an average of 23 percent per year since 2005. Information collected by Open Secrets shows the amount of money Darden spends on lobbying has dropped remarkably in the past year. It spent $185,000 on lobbying expenditures in 2015, a far cry from the $1,089,000 it spent in 2014. In fact, the company spent more than $1 million on lobbying efforts each year from 2008 to 2014.
Asked why lobbying efforts appear to have slowed, Jeffers attributed it to "the ebb and flow of decisions at the company" and noted Darden has also closed an office it once held in Washington, D.C. "That was no longer a priority," he said.
The advocates behind the Good Food Now! campaign (the coalition that organized the protests) also brought a petition signed by more than 130,000 people to the chain's corporate headquarters on Thursday, as well as to management at individual Olive Garden stores. The petition specifically urges Darden to: "reduce meat and dairy purchases by 20 percent; source meat from producers that adhere to verifiable, higher-than-industry animal-welfare standards; improve worker wages; and increase local and organic options."
At a protest in Hyattsville, Md., (just outside of D.C.), 11 people carried signs proclaiming, "Good Food Means... A Valued Work Force" and "Olive Garden Pays Unfair Wages, Serves Meat & Dairy From Inhumane Factory Farms."
Michelle Pawliger, a policy associate at the Animal Welfare Institute, was among the protesters. As for why the group concentrated its efforts on Darden, she told Eater the company's "purchasing power is really big and because of that, they have the power to make change in the industry." Pawliger is specifically concerned with the standards by which the company sources its meat. "They tout themselves as a company that uses humane standards, but consumers don't see humane as keeping animals in small spaces, not being able to see the outside, etc."
Jeffers said the issue of animal welfare is important to Darden, pointing to the company's commitment to use cage-free eggs by 2018, crate-free pork by 2025, and the decision to stop purchasing antibiotic-laden meat by the end of the year.
Pawliger would like to see the company switch to a third-party certification to verify higher welfare standards. She said she emailed the company to ask specifically what constitutes "cage-free" but never received a response.
At a company the size of Darden, change doesn't happen overnight. "The food that we serve will continue to evolve to address guest preferences and needs and we'll do that at a pace that's good for our business," Jeffers said. That process is stymied somewhat, he added, by the supply chain. At the company's 40 Seasons 52 locations, which serve 100,000 guests per week, antibiotic-free poultry is already on the menu. Olive Garden, on the other hand, serves some 4,000,000 guests per week — many of whom are not the same type of customer who dines at the lower-calorie, higher-cost Seasons 52 restaurants.
"The capacity within the supply chain is more constrained for a buy that large and, also, the guest preference is different," Jeffers said. "We talk to 300,000 Olive Garden guests a month, 4,000,000 guests a year. It all goes back to running the business the way we think is appropriate for our guests, for our team members, and our shareholders."
Though Pawliger hasn't received a recent response from Darden, she did attempt to speak to an employee at the Hyattsville Olive Garden location Thursday afternoon. When she walked inside the restaurant to deliver the Good Food Now! petition, she was immediately greeted by a manager, who said he would not accept the petition (nor would he provide comment to Eater). The petition was left with the hostess instead.