The new parent company of the Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana polished-casual chains has named former Darden Restaurants executive Dave Pickens president and COO.
The appointment reunites Pickens with Brad Blum, a principal and the CEO of FoodFirst Global Restaurants, the company formed by Blum and private-equity firm GP Investments to buy and reinvigorate restaurant chains. FoodFirst purchased Brio and Bravo from the shareholders of Bravo Brio Restaurant Group earlier this year for $100 million in cash.
Pickens has been charged with improving service at both Brio and Bravo while bolstering the efficiencies of each. He fills the vacancy left by the August departure as COO of Bob Mock, another Darden alumnus.
Blum and Pickens worked together at Olive Garden in the 1990s to deliver on both of those goals. Blum was president and Pickens served as EVP of operations. Pickens eventually succeeded Blum as president of the Italian chain.
During their mutual tenure, the pair revived Olive Garden, which had lost momentum after rapidly expanding to become a national chain. At the time, it was Darden’s secondary concept, behind Red Lobster in size and importance to the parent company’s financial performance.
Pickens retired from Darden in 2014, amid a campaign by disgruntled shareholder Starboard Value to change management and the casual-dining company’s direction. With Starboard leading the charge, Darden shareholders voted that year to replace the company’s whole board of directors.
Blum had left Darden in 2002 to become CEO of Burger King. He subsequently served as CEO of Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Romano’s tried to outbid FoodFirst for Bravo Brio with a late offer, but was unsuccessful.
“I am thrilled that Dave is joining our team as he brings a wealth of knowledge, leadership and operations experience,” Blum said in a statement.
“I am eager to partner again with Brad and join the FoodFirst Global Restaurants officer team,” Pickens said in that statement. “I believe I can contribute to the company’s exciting vision by further elevating the operations of two brands that already hold enormous potential and positively influence overall performance.”
Pickens is the latest executive to join FoodFirst at the C-suite level. Earlier appointments include John Wong, as chief marketing and technology officer; Mike Ellis, chief development officer; and Diane Reed, CFO.
FoodFirst operates about 110 restaurants under the Bravo and Brio names.