Darden CEO: 'Believe it or not, millennials still want to come to restaurants'

  • Darden CEO Gene Lee doesn't think that Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods Market will stop millennials from eating out.
  • Some 30 percent of Darden's guests are millennials, Lee said.
  • "The only way Amazon is in our world right now is through Amazon Prime delivery," Lee said.
Millennials dining at Olive Garden in Washington, D.C.
Matt McClain | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Millennials dining at Olive Garden in Washington, D.C.

Darden Restaurants isn't afraid of tech giant Amazon.

The restaurant company — whose brands include Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse — doesn't think Amazon's planned acquisition of Whole Foods Market will put too much pressure on the restaurant industry.

"We constantly sit around here thinking about how does Amazon have an impact on our business," CEO Gene Lee said during a conference call Tuesday. "Our research tells us that guests still want to come to restaurants."

Many analysts foresee Amazon's planned acquisition as a disruption to not only the grocery segment, but also to the restaurant industry. Whole Foods has already siphoned foot traffic away from restaurants with its in-store prepared food section.

Amazon can only strengthen the grocer's presence in the market, adding technology to make getting food easier for customers — something millennials crave.

However, Lee isn't too worried that the tech giant's foray into the grocery industry will weigh on Darden.

"Believe it or not, millennials still want to come to restaurants," he said. "I know you don't think millennials want to go to restaurants, but 30 percent of our guests are millennials versus 24 percent of the population. So we over indexed. "

Lee said Darden's new acquisition, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, is particularly popular with millennial diners, as is its staple brand Olive Garden.

"The only way Amazon is in our world right now is through Amazon Prime delivery," Lee said. "We have a test going on with them. We'll continue to partner with them and see if we can make that work."

Darden has been testing third-party delivery with multiple vendors to find the best way to deliver food to consumers. Currently, the company's main focus is with large party delivery and takeout at chains like Olive Garden. The Italian chain's ToGo program grew 16 percent during the quarter, Lee said.