Are Olive Garden and Red Lobster the new symbols of liberal causes?
That's the outrageous claim that some are making after Darden announced more healthful options at those restaurants and its other chains.
Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis smiled for the cameras last week with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has campaigned against childhood obesity, as he unveiled Darden's plan to reduce calories and salt by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Almost immediately, posts on the Facebook fan pages for Olive Garden and Red Lobster took on the vitriolic tone that is all too common in politics today.
"I LOVE Red Lobster, but if you follow the plan of Michelle Obama I will not be eating at your restaurant ever again," wrote one poster. "… I will not have my food choices dictated to me by food dictators like Michelle Obama."
"You should be ashamed," said another. "The government does not know best. Americans and the free markets do. My contribution to the free market economy of the USA will be to never eat at an Olive Garden restaurant again."
And they go on and on.
All of that over simple changes such as veggies instead of French fries as the automatic side item on the children's menu?
These changes are the result of the free market.
The idea that Darden suddenly changed its business model to cater to the whims of the White House is just silly.
Make no mistake, this Fortune 500 company that operates two $1 billion-brands (Olive Garden and Red Lobster) and is about to hit the $1 billion mark with a third (LongHorn Steakhouse) has profits on the top of its priority list.
For at least two decades, Darden has offered lighter menu items because that's what the market demanded. In 2003, long before Michelle Obama's call to trim fatty foods, Darden opened its first Seasons 52, a brand at which every menu item is less than 475 calories.
In 2004 Red Lobster introduced a "LightHouse Selections" menu that increased that brand's offering of more healthful fare.
At the time, a Raymond James analyst lauded the move because market demand was increasing.
"It's about time Red Lobster did this," said Bryan Elliott, a restaurant analyst at Raymond James & Associates Inc. ". . . I would be very surprised if the change doesn't have a significant impact on sales. Maybe not right away, but within a few months."
That sounds like the market at work to me.
Look closely and Darden's new commitment isn't so remarkable. It's pledging to cut calories and sodium by 20 percent over 10 years. That's an average decrease of about 2 percent a year — hardly a dramatic overhaul.
Darden executives say that the announcement was driven by market research along with the company's desire to support the First Lady's initiative.
"We see an emerging trend and we only expect it to grow more," said spokesman Rich Jeffers.
They had to know that — especially so close to an election year — there would be some blow back from a vocal group who would bristle at any affiliation with an unpopular president in a lousy economy.
It's not the kind of risk we see often from Darden, but my guess is it was a calculated one in which the good will the company will build with parents who want healthier options for themselves and their children will outweigh the bad.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5448. Read Beth's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun