Olive Garden owner Darden to set up REIT to pay down debt

Chow down on Darden

Darden Restaurants said it intends to separate some of its restaurants into a publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT) as part of a plan to pay down about $1 billion of debt.

Shares of Darden, which also reported better-than-expected quarterly profit and revenue, rose 7 percent to $74.25 in premarket trading on Tuesday.

The owner of the Olive Garden restaurant chain said it would transfer about 430 of its more than 1,500 restaurants to the REIT this year and lease back most of the properties.

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After the completing the conversion, the REIT will distribute profit for the year ending Dec. 31 in the form of a dividend, with about 20 percent in cash and the rest in REIT stock, Darden said.

An Olive Garden restaurant in Laguna Hills, California
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Darden also listed 75 properties for individual sale-leasebacks, with most of these deals expected to close by the end of August.

The company is also looking to sell and lease back its headquarters in Orlando, Florida.

Darden also adopted a shareholder rights plan to stop investors from building up a more than 9.8 percent stake in the period leading up to the REIT conversion.

Monthly traffic at Olive Garden restaurants fell from October to the end of April, despite new management being put in place after a coup last year led by activist investor Starboard Value, Darden's largest shareholder as of Dec. 31.

Traffic at Olive Garden grew in March, but fell again in April and May.

Despite the slowdown in traffic, Darden said sales grew 14 percent in the fourth quarter ended May 31 compared with a year earlier, with Olive Garden same-restaurant sales rising 3.4 percent, helped in part by higher pricing.

The company also forecast a better-than-expected full-year adjusted profit, and said it expected same-restaurant sales to grow 2 to 2.5 percent.