NEW YORK — Darden is setting Red Lobster adrift, but betting that it can still turn around Olive Garden’s fortunes.
The company, based in Orlando, Florida, said Friday that it would sell its seafood chain to investment firm Golden Gate Capital in a $2.1 billion cash deal. The announcement came despite objections from some shareholders to the plan to either spin off or sell Red Lobster, which was announced late last year.
Both Olive Garden and Red Lobster have been losing customers in recent years, even as Darden changed their menus and marketing campaigns to win back business. Part of the problem is the growing popularity of places like Chipotle and Panera, where customers feel they can get the same quality of food without having to pay as much or wait for table service.
But Darden CEO Clarence Otis has noted that Red Lobster’s customers have increasingly differed from those at Olive Garden and the company’s other chains, which also include Longhorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille.
In particular, Otis says Red Lobster hasn’t been able to attract higher-income customers.
Red Lobster, which opened in 1968, helped popularize seafood among Americans and today has about 700 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The first restaurant in Lakeland, Florida, boasted a menu including a half a dozen oysters for 65 cents and platters with frog legs and hush puppies for $2.50.
As the chain suffered sales declines more recently, Darden executives blamed a variety of factors, including a refusal among customers to swallow price hikes. In 2012, for instance, executives cited a $1 price hike for its “Festival of Shrimp” special in explaining a quarterly decline in sales.
More recently, the company tried expanding Red Lobster’s menu to include more non-seafood dishes in hopes of attracting a wider array of customers. The efforts didn’t take hold.
Darden sees more potential in fixing Olive Garden, which has about 830 locations. The company recently reworked the logo for Italian chain and has been adding lighter menu items, as well as smaller dishes that it says reflect eating trends.
Still, affordability is an ongoing issue across the industry and Darden has been slow to address it. At the height of the downturn, for instance, Applebee’s introduced a “2 for $20” deal that proved so popular it ended up becoming a menu fixture.
Activist investor Barington Capital has challenged Darden’s plans to sell Red Lobster, saying the company should separate Olive Garden and Red Lobster as a pair from its more successful chains. Darden’s other chains include Bahama Breeze, Seasons52, Eddie V’s and Yard House.
After the transaction costs, Darden said it expects proceeds of $1.6 billion, of which $1 billion will be used to retire outstanding debt. The company said it expects the deal to close in its first fiscal quarter of 2015.
Golden Gate Capital made a separate $1.5 billion deal to sell Red Lobster’s real estate to American Realty Capital Properties, then lease it back. Its other investments include California Pizza Kitchen, Payless ShoeSource and Eddie Bauer.
Shares of Darden fell nearly 4 percent to $48.70 in premarket trading.
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