Your writer lives beyond the outskirts of Midland, Michigan, a small Midwestern town that is buoyed fortuitously by a Fortune 50 company. It’s a nifty place: Population around 50,000, a plethora of parks and bike trails, three rivers converging west of town, relatively low crime rate, and plenty of establishments of both the local and national variety in which to dine out. One of these eateries is the Darden Restaurants, Inc. chain Olive Garden. Can’t say I’ve ever dined there, but I’ve noticed the parking lot is always full whenever I drive past on my way to the movie theater or book store, which must indicate something positive. Then there are these little nuggets of info: Darden reports $6.7 billion in sales each year, largely accountable to its 1,500 Olive Garden casual-dining restaurants, which serve 320 million meals annually.
Despite its widespread popularity, however, Olive Garden is the source of grave agitas among leftist activists behind the Good Food Now! crusade, which includes our old friends over at Green America. This group, readers will recall, is allied with shareholder activists Ceres and the US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing that, in turn, boast affiliations with faith-based investment organizations As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
What has Good Food Now! folk so up in arms, taking to the streets, waving protest signs and whatnot? Could it be serious violations of labor laws or crimes against pasta or a desire for cannoli made from non-genetically modified ingredients? Nah, as ridiculous as those may be they don’t measure against the stated Good Food Now! attempts to squelch Darden’s lobbying against a minimum-wage hike and source its food locally.
Here’s the Good Food Now! membership roster and its gloss on the group’s agenda:
The “Good Food Now!” campaign is a partnership of Friends of the Earth, Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Green America and the Animal Welfare Institute. Key petition supporters include CREDO Action, Sum of Us, Food Democracy Now!, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Organic Consumers Association, the International Labor Rights Forum and Fair World Project.
The petition [delivered to Darden on May 12, and signed by more than 130,000 people] specifically urges Darden to reduce meat and dairy purchases by 20 percent; source meat from producers that adhere to verifiable, higher-than-industry animal-welfare standards; improve worker wages; and increase local and organic options.
“As the world’s largest employer of tipped workers, Darden could be a leader in advocating for a fair wage for all workers but instead spends millions lobbying to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13,” said Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center-United.
“Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and how it was made, and restaurants are no exception,” said Elizabeth Jardim, director of consumer advocacy at Green America. “Olive Garden needs to meet consumer demand by sourcing more ingredients from local farmers and paying all workers, including those in its supply chain, fairly.”
“As a major player in the restaurant industry, Olive Garden and its parent company Darden can spearhead reforms that not only improve working conditions for their employees, but can help shift practices across the entire industry,” said Phillip Hamilton, associate for Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s Economic Justice program
As noted above, your writer has no dog in this fight as he’s not much for dining out when home-cooked meals make more economic and, often, epicurean sense – but he does take exception to a group of bossy-boots know-it-alls who seek to enforce their shortsighted ideological agenda on the rest of us as if we’re unwashed, ignorant pagans and they’re the missionaries of the one, true and only legitimate cuisine experience. How well did such locally sourced zealotry serve Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., for example? Let’s also note the unintended consequences of raising the minimum wage of fast-food franchise employees can easily be applied to casual-dining restaurants.
The Green America press release continues:
“Darden’s response so far has been to restate its commitment to ‘responsibly-sourced food, supporting employees and protecting the environment’ without addressing the concerns about its environmental footprint,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time for Olive Garden and all Darden restaurants to move beyond the rhetoric and take concrete steps to create a more sustainable menu by serving smaller meat portions, adding plant-based options and increasing organic foods.”
Sigh. Apparently “sustainability” experts don’t require business or economics degrees. Let’s hypothetically imagine Olive Garden responds affirmatively to Ms. Feldstein’s imperatives and the related increases in costs, which inevitably will be passed on to Olive Garden’s customers. Just down the street from the Olive Garden in your writer’s town are Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, Panera Bread and the food court at the mall, which contains a few tasty options. In other words, casual-dining experiences exist that will certainly benefit from the most-assuredly increased prices at Olive Garden when its customers abandon them for less-expensive fare.
When and if Darden determines it makes sense to pay its wait staff more, cut down on portions and locally source its ingredients should be left up to the company rather than the demands of ideologues seemingly lacking any background in economics or business.