A petition is circulating across America asking that the country’s largest restaurant company treat and pay its African-American employees equally.
The petition comes as a result of the suit Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-United) has filed against Darden Restaurants claiming that the company systemically favors white workers over minorities. The suit alleges that minority employees at The Capital Grille job sites in New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. are shunted away from front-of-the-house jobs like waiters and hosts toward lower-paying kitchen jobs and that Darden discriminates against Blacks by not offering a clear succession path from its low fare restaurants (Red Lobster and Olive Garden) to its high-brow The Capital Grille.
On the other hand, a Darden representative described the allegations as baseless. The irony of the situation is that the man in charge at Darden is Clarence Otis, Jr., an African-American. Otis is the chairman of the board and CEO of the company.
The Darden family of restaurants features recognizable and successful full-service brands such as: Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. Darden owns and/or operates more than 1,900 restaurants that employ 180,000 people and serve more than 400 million meals a year.
The ROC-United campaign is asking the public to, “Join us in calling on Darden to … institute a promotions policy that allows Black workers to compete for jobs as servers, bartenders and chefs at the company’s fine-dining facilities.” The nationwide campaign asks that African-American workers be able to advance to livable wages at Darden’s The Capital Grille sites and not be relegated to the lowest-wage work.
The litigants contend African-American workers in the restaurant industry are routinely relegated to fast food outlets while whites more readily climb the ranks to earn upwards of $50,000 a year.
“The Capital Grille is the only place within the company where workers can earn a living wage,” charge the litigants.
Litigants want Darden to provide clear pipelines to higher-paid work at The Capital Grille restaurants.
Darden acquired The Capital Grille chain from Rare Hospitality in 2007. The Capital Grille is considered the “Big Leagues” of Darden restaurants and operates upscale steakhouse locations in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
“Darden Restaurants is very proud of the work environment that it creates for employees,” said spokesperson Rich Jeffers.
In stark contrast to the lawsuit’s allegations, Fortune Magazine ranks Darden among its “Top 100 Places to Work.” Darden has a well-established history of promoting minority workers to managerial positions, getting high marks for a diverse workforce.
Otis is a trailblazer. How he handles this situation may make him a business icon. He has been with Darden for 17 years. In his capacity as CEO for the past seven years, he has guided the company to a $400 million annual net income. Otis came to Darden in its spin-off from Twin Cities based General Mills. His only previous restaurant experience had been in college when he waited tables during summer breaks. Now, the 56-year-old executive and his wife have one of the largest collections of African art in the U.S.
The ROC-United allegation that African-American workers are routinely discriminated against throughout the restaurant industry merits the public’s attention and concern. Beyond Darden, restaurants account for one of every 12 private sector jobs and are the nation’s second-largest private sector employer. The industry has a workforce of nearly 13 million and is one of the country’s strongest job creators. National Restaurant Association President Dawn Sweeny said, “The industry provides millions with rewarding career and employment opportunities … and whether in the kitchen or the corporate office, restaurants offer a variety of career paths.”
With an African-American CEO essentially being charged with discriminating against his company’s African-American employees, the Darden discrimination case bears further watching.
William Reed is the publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America.”