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UPDATE 1-Olive Garden parent Darden says severe winter hurt sales

March 3 (Reuters) - Olive Garden owner Darden Restaurants Inc estimated third-quarter profit below analysts' expectations, blaming severe winter weather for lower sales.

Darden's earnings have suffered as U.S. consumers cut spending and competition increases from brands such as Panera Bread Co and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

Darden said it was on track to separate its Red Lobster business.

The company, under pressure from hedge fund Barington Capital Group, said in December that it would spin off or sell its floundering Red Lobster chain.

Darden said on Monday that it expected a profit of 82 cents per share from continuing operations for the quarter ended Feb. 23.

Analysts on average were expecting 93 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Lower sales and higher direct costs associated with severe winter weather hurt profit by about 7 cents per share, Darden said.

The Orlando-based company said it expected U.S. same-restaurant sales to fall 5.4 percent at Olive Garden and 8.8 percent at Red Lobster.

Darden will report third-quarter earnings on March 21.

The company's shares closed at $51.06 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.