As restaurant company expands, so do development opportunities

The Olive Garden is one of the restaurant chains operated by Darden. Photo by: Marlon E / CC BY-NC-SA

This article is produced and published by Devex Impact, a global initiative of Devex and USAID, that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

Darden Restaurants may not be a familiar name, but the Orlando, Fl.-based corporation is the largest full-service restaurant company in the world, operating well-known chains including Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

Over the past five years, the company has been involved in international development via its seafood supply chain. For example, Darden supports the Global FISH Alliance, a public-private partnership it launched with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009. Today, the alliance, which is managed by FHI 360, works in Honduras, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Cambodia to promote sustainable livelihoods and reduce dangerous harvesting practices. In Honduras, for example, several thousand men have died or been paralyzed as a result of diving for lobster with faulty equipment in unsafe conditions; the alliance works with local partners to reform the industry.

Devex Impact talked with Brandon Tidwell, sustainability manager for Darden about the company’s growing commitment to international development.

Why is Darden motivated to work with NGOs, government and others through the Global FISH Alliance?

Seafood has and will continue to be our most critical protein. It makes up approximately one-third of our supply chain. It’s also the protein we source most globally. About half of our seafood comes from aquaculture and half from wild harvesting, so we monitor the health of all the species we source worldwide.

One of our goals is to end the practice of commercial scuba-diving for lobster. It’s difficult, however, to certify if a lobster is dive-caught – it’s not something that’s stamped on the shell. The practice of scuba-diving for lobster in Honduras is dangerous for divers and can lead to unsustainable harvesting practices. That’s where we saw the need to partner with USAIDFHI 360 and other partners, so we could begin to address the issue on a governmental and policy level.

Through the Global FISH Alliance, we’ve been supporting the government of Honduras to shift the economic development of that region and provide alternative employment for the divers. At the same time, we are trying to ensure that wild harvesting happens more in line with global harvesting standards. Honduras agreed through the Central America Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization to make the practice illegal and various ministers are working with their legislature to make the practice illegal by January 1, 2013.

Do you foresee more development-focused work in Darden’s future?

If you talk to folks who work in seafood sourcing, it’s impossible to look at the future and not realize that much of the work in seafood is going to be connected to economic development. As our supply chain diversifies and demand increases, more seafood will come from aquaculture, much of it happening in Asia, Africa and South America. That growth brings a lot of opportunity for Darden to engage in economic development work.

For example, we recently announced a partnership with the Malaysian government to development the first commercial rock-lobster farm in Malaysia. 

Is there push back from people within Darden who resist that global focus?

Because of the values of our company and our leadership, people at Darden understand our responsibility in the world. We have globally minded buyers on the supply chain team. While the majority of our operations to date have been in the United States and Canada, we are expanding globally in Mexico and the Middle East through franchising, and that brings more awareness.

So overall, no, we don’t get people who resist the idea of us engaging in economic development work.

The challenge is more around: How do we as a company balance this work with other demands on our time? How do we know when or where we should get involved? There are so many issues we could engage around.

How do you decide where to engage?

We believe we need to be working first and foremost in the regions where we source from. That’s where we have the most authentic opportunity. Second, we have to focus on where we have the best ability to make an impact. Is there a specific role we can play? Is there something unique we can bring as a global buyer? A lot of people want us to be at the table, but we need to maintain our focus.

So far we’ve committed around fisheries, but fishery improvement project work can take 10 or 15 or even 20 years to really move the needle. It’s hard for a corporation to make those types of long-term commitments, and it’s not often feasible. So we are looking at what we can do in two or three years to help move the needle.

What have you learned from working with government, NGOs and other partners?

We’ve learned that the wheels of government and NGOs move at a much slower pace than what we’re used to, but that partnership with them is necessary to get buy-in and authenticity. We’ve also learned that it’s important to have clear, measurable goals and strong project management. Meetings and conversations are great – it’s part of a good-faith effort – but we’re not going to be effective if we don’t have key goals everyone is focused on. Finally, we’ve learned that we’re not the only players. We’ve got to reach out and discover how other stakeholders view the issues.

What do you wish partners or potential partners understood better about Darden?

We may be a large company, with over 2,000 restaurants and 185,000 employees, but we are still very lean. We go into this work in a very intentional, value-centric way. We are always open to talking, but we are only going to engage in a targeted way, so the more concrete an opportunity is, the better.

How do you measure the impact of your global development work?

We’re not there yet, in terms of having a complete system of measurement. Last year we developed a stakeholder analysis tool that helps us look at our relationships and which policy areas we need to focus on. But it would be good to have more metrics.

What’s in this work for Darden shareholders?

Quite simply, it’s our business. Seafood is a vital part of our supply chain. Wild harvest populations are declining while demand is increasing. At the same time, the climate is changing, and so are those ecosystems. The ocean has a lot of stakeholders: there is the energy industry, tourism, shipping, and recreational fishing among others. We need to work with others to reduce our risk and secure our supply chain. If we aren’t involved in this space, it means we endanger our ability to grow as a company. We have not had a lot of questions about it from analysts, but our investors and our board are aware of our commitments.

What’s next on your agenda in terms of global projects?

We are beginning to look into protein groups beyond seafood. We’ve been in the seafood space for decades, and focused on the economic development angle for more than five years. Now we’re ready to take a broader view.

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About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.