ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The CEO of Darden Restaurants Inc., the owner of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other chains, will retire in May and be replaced by the company’s president and chief operating officer.

Gene Lee, 60, said Friday he will remain as board chairman after he steps down after seven years as CEO. He will be replaced by Rick Cardenas, a longtime Darden employee.

Lee is credited with successfully guiding Darden through the pandemic. In addition to Olive Garden, and LongHorn, the Orlando-based company also owns Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze and Eddie V’s. It has more than 1,850 locations, making it the nation’s largest full-service restaurant chain with annual sales in excess of $7 billion.

Restaurant analyst John Gordon told the Orlando Sentinel that Lee has been “extremely strong, steady hand that steadied the company.” He called Darden’s handling of the pandemic a “virtuoso performance.” The company established a paid sick-leave policy for its employees and provided emergency pay to employees who were furloughed when dining rooms closed.

“There was never any doubt about the survival of Darden,” Gordon said.

Cardenas, 53, started with the company as an hourly employee in 1984 and worked his way through the ranks. He became the chief financial officer in 2016 and became president and chief operating officer 11 months ago.


He said he does not expect to make any major changes in how the company operates.

“I really think the strategy that we have is the right strategy,” Cardenas told analysts and shareholders in a conference call Friday. “I don’t see a big change in our strategic priorities, partly because I was a big part of writing them.”

Lee did say the company will increase its minimum hourly wage from $10 to $12, including tips, starting next month and that most employees will make more. He said the average restaurant worker will make $20 an hour.

The $12-figure “is what I would call entry-level wage and more in rural America,” Lee said. “In the major cities, you’re not hiring anybody for $12 an hour today. This is an increase and a guarantee to our workforce that will probably have more impact on Cheddar’s than any of our other brands.”