Once a busser for Darden, Rick Cardenas is set to become its CEO

The industry lifer has spent virtually his entire career with the company, rising from a 16-year-old Red Lobster employee to the top post.
Photo illustration by RB Staff

Rick Cardenas once told a professor that his goal was to be the chief financial officer of a Fortune 500 company.

He crossed that off the list five years ago, when he became CFO of Darden Restaurants. And next year, he will exceed the already high bar he set for himself in college by assuming the role of Darden CEO. He will replace Gene Lee, who announced his retirement Friday.

The promotion caps a rags-to-riches story as potent as any the restaurant industry has seen. Cardenas, 53, has worked in restaurants—and for Darden—nearly nonstop since he was 16, when he got his first job: busser at Red Lobster, the seafood concept co-founded by Bill Darden.

Cardenas worked at the Orlando restaurant throughout his time at the University of Central Florida, using his earnings to pay his tuition as the first person in his family to attend college. He graduated in 1992 and, rather than apply his degrees in accounting and finance elsewhere, decided to stay with the company that got him through college. He became an auditor for Red Lobster and took the first of many small steps up the Darden corporate ladder.

He briefly left the company in 1998, to join the consulting firm Bain & Co., after earning an MBA from Dartmouth College, but returned in 2001 as director of corporate development. He has held more than a dozen positions at Darden since then, making a jump every couple of years and touching a good portion of the company’s portfolio, including Seasons 52, LongHorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden.

"Rick ... is one of the best strategic thinkers I've worked alongside." —Outgoing Darden CEO Gene Lee

His longest-tenured role was as CFO, a post he held for nearly five years, from March 2016 to January 2021. That’s when he took on Lee’s role of president and also became COO—a promotion that appears to have been setting him up as Lee’s successor.

"Rick has been a strong partner over the past five years and this role will provide him the opportunity to oversee new areas of the business while broadening his influence across Darden," Lee said in a statement at the time.

On Friday, Darden’s board unanimously voted to make Cardenas the company’s next CEO, effective May 30, 2022. He will also get a seat on the board.

As a close partner to Lee during his seven-year CEO tenure, Cardenas helped shape Darden’s strategy, which includes a strong emphasis on operations and using its advantages in scale and data to drive results.

The company has been among the best in the business over that time. Its stock price has risen more than 88% over the past five years, reflecting quarter after quarter of same-store sales increases prior to the pandemic.

Cardenas "is one of the best strategic thinkers I've worked alongside," Lee said on Darden’s quarterly earnings call Friday.

Given all that, the company’s next CEO said not to expect much to change when he takes the reins. After all, Cardenas pointed out, he had a big hand in creating the company’s current strategic priorities.

"It would be a little weird if I did change those," he told investors on the call. "But we'll look and see as we go through our five-year plan process, which we just did last year. So there's not a whole lot for us to talk about right now."

He was also involved in many of Darden’s acquisitions over the years, including Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House and Eddie V’s Prime Seafood. And he did not rule out doing more of that as CEO.

"Our management team and board regularly evaluate all of our alternatives," he told investors. "How do we allocate capital? How do we manage our business to achieve our long-term goals? And M&A is part of that. And we'll continue to act the same way we have over the last 10 years or 15 years since we bought Rare [Hospitality]."

Cardenas will take charge of the Orlando-based company’s eight casual and fine-dining brands: Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze and Eddie V’s Prime Seafood. Together they account for more than 1,850 restaurants and 170,000 employees worldwide.

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