Darden Restaurants serves up the American dream

  @FortuneMagazine May 6, 2013: 8:19 AM ET
GRE20 darden restaurants

Lisa Hoggs at the LongHorn Steakhouse she oversees in Cumberland, Ga.

(Fortune)

100 Best Companies to Work For Rank: 65
Headquarters: Orlando
No. of Employees: 180,000
Facts: 42% of the workforce are minorities; women make up 39% of managerial ranks.

Legend has it that Bill Darden, founder of Darden Restaurants, once spent a night under a malfunctioning dishwasher shortly after he opened the first Red Lobster. It was 1968, and Darden, dressed in a three-piece suit, didn't hesitate to do the dirty work. Those were the early days, when starting a fresh-seafood restaurant in central Florida -- which would become an empire of eight separate restaurant chains -- seemed as improbable a path to the American dream as it sounds.

Today Darden -- now the nation's largest casual-dining company -- is a path for many. The parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, and others has 180,000 workers, making it the 27th-largest private employer in the U.S. and the second largest -- behind FedEx -- on Fortune's Best Companies to Work For list. It's the only restaurant chain that has ever made our list, a designation it earned in part by building a culture that dares its employees to dream big.

"We want our employees to recognize that everyone who walks in our doors can go all the way to the top," says Clarence Otis, Darden's CEO, who grew up in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood. After attending Stanford Law School, he was plucked from Wall Street to work at Darden in 1995.

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