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Darden CEO Gene Lee named IFMA foodservice operator of the year

Gene Lee, CEO of Olive Garden and The Capital Grille parent Darden Restaurants, was named the 2018 foodservice operator of the year by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association at a gala event last night.

Lee accepted the honor, known as the Gold Plate, with a request the operators and suppliers in the audience never forget the opportunities they provide young people who aren’t interested in a conventional career or haven’t figured out what to do with their lives.

Darden CEO Gene Lee given Golden Plate Award for foodservice operator of the year

He cited himself as an example, mentioning that he started as a busboy. “I was a lost young person until the industry took me in,” he said. “How misunderstood we are as an industry because we can’t tell our story.”

He paid tribute to Darden’s COO and longtime colleague Dave George for helping to forge Darden’s turnaround and growth. “I’m up here because of Dave George,” he said.

He also cited the longtime guidance of mentor and former boss Phil Hickey, currently chairman of Miller’s Ale House and the CEO of Rare Hospitality until the steakhouse operator was acquired by Darden in 2007.

Lee was chosen for the Gold Plate from a field of eight operators who’d been selected earlier as the year’s best leaders within their respective market segments. Lee had won that preliminary honor, the Silver Plate, in the full-service chain category.

Other Silver Plate winners included Paul Brown, CEO of Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings parent Inspire Brands, in the limited-service chain category; Craig Huse, co-owner of the St. Elmo’s steakhouse in Indiana, independent restaurants or group; Susan Terry, VP of culinary and F&B operations for Marcus Hotels, lodging; and Voni Woods, experience officer at Giant Eagle supermarkets, alternative foodservice.

The Silver Plate winners included operators in four segments of noncommercial foodservice: Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining services at University of Connecticut, in the category of colleges and universities; Jim McGrody, culinary director of UNC Rex Healthcare, health care; Michiel Bakker, director of Google Food, Google, business and industry foodservice; and Ken Yant, director of the school nutrition program and Gwinnet Public Schools, elementary and secondary schools.

The Silver Plate winners, along with past recipients, were honored at a banquet during the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago.  Those winners were announced in March. The winner of the Gold Plate was a secret until the results of a secret ballot was revealed at the end of the dinner.

The Silver and Gold Plate winners were chosen by a jury of past winners, industry VIPs and the editors of business-to-business publications serving the foodservice industry. A representative of Restaurant Business and FoodService Director was included in the jury. 

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