Last week, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), an advocacy group dedicated to equality for restaurant workers, filed a federal employee discrimination suit against Darden Restaurants, the Orlando-based owners of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and five other full service dining chains. ROC claims that Darden systematically favors white workers over minorities at its Capital Grille chain of steakhouses and is seeking compensation for what it is calling an illegal system of discrimination.
ROC specifically alleges that minority workers at the Capital Grilles in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. are shunted away from front-of-house jobs like waiters and hosts and towards lower-paying jobs in the kitchen. The suit also claims that many workers have been forced to work without pay and that tips were distributed to workers in positions ineligible for tipping.
The advocacy group has also organized protests outside Capital Grille locations to support its cause, part of what it is calling the "Dignity at Darden" campaign.
Sandra Pelicini of the Orlando Sentinel argued that Darden is an unlikely target for a racial discrimination suit. Its CEO, she notes, is black, and the company has a well-established history of promoting minority workers to managerial positions.
Moreover, some have problems with the ROC's methods. Its best-known case was a highly public suit against B&B Hospitality, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianach's group of New York restaurants. Batali secured a restraining order against the ROC after its protestors became a serious nuisance.
Of course, reputation only gets you so far -- if the ROC can prove that Capital Grille acted improperly, it could win the case. Not that Darden seems all that worried. Representatives from the company, contacted by Crain's New York, described the ROC's allegations as "baseless."