|By Sandra Pedicini, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 14, 2012--When the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's statewide leadership gathered for a board meeting last week in Key West, a major member was missing: Orlando-basedDarden Restaurants Inc.
The world's largest casual-dining company is quietly ending its longtime affiliation with the trade group, which represents hotels and restaurants throughout the state. Industry experts say Darden's departure will cost the association, which lobbies the Legislature and governor on hospitality issues, some of its political clout.
"Darden's so big -- FRLA needs them," said H.G. Parsa, a restaurant professor at the University of Central Florida's hospitality college. "It's like a mall losing a Sears or a JCPenney -- that's the anchor."
Darden, whose holdings include the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurant chains, notified the association shortly after the end of this year's legislative session that it wasn't renewing its membership when it expires at the end of the year. Darden's lobbyists have already stepped down from the restaurant-and-hotel group's board of directors.
The Fortune 500 company, which joined the restaurant association in the early 1980s, wouldn't give a reason for its withdrawal when asked about it this week. Carol Dover, the trade group's chief executive officer and president, said Darden didn't give her specifics, either.
"I hope it's not a long-term thing," she said. "They're good members. It's a great company."
The giant restaurant operator may have thought it more important to focus on national issues, restaurant experts said, and disagreement over one or more of the FRLA's legislative positions may have also played a part, they added.
Earlier this year, Darden said publicly the time wasn't right for a bill drafted by the restaurant association that would have slashed the minimum wage for Florida workers who earn tips to $2.13 an hour.
Dover indicated at the time that she expected Darden's support, but the restaurant company said it had been kept in the dark until shortly prior to the proposal's debut before a legislative committee in Tallahassee. Darden said the bill was being rushed through and at an inappropriate time, given the state of the economy.
The proposed measure, which outraged many Floridians and was lampooned by TV satirist Stephen Colbert, eventually died in committee. The association, meanwhile, was criticized for portraying the bill as a way to ensure "higher, stable wages" for restaurant workers.
The botched attempt to cut restaurant servers' wages likely contributed to Darden's decision to drop its FRLA membership, experts said.
"No company, especially a company that takes itself very seriously, ever wants to be embarrassed by the trade organizations they belong to," said Chris Muller, a former UCF restaurant professor who is now dean of Boston University's hospitality school.
The minimum-wage bill had been promoted by Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners, owner of the Outback Steakhouse chain, which remains an FRLA member. The association's membership also includes Florida-based restaurant heavyweights such as Ruth's Hospitality Group of Winter Park and Miami-based Burger King, Dover said.
The association lobbies and hosts educational programs for its 10,000 members, which range from corporate chains to single-site independent restaurateurs and hotels. The group was created by the 2005 merger of the Florida Lodging Association into the Florida Restaurant Association.
Darden still belongs to the National Restaurant Association and is on that group's board of directors. Darden wouldn't say how many state-level restaurant groups, if any, it still belongs to.
The Florida restaurant association would not say how much Darden paid each year in dues.
"We will always represent Darden," Dover said. "We'll represent them in the sense we're going to be working on common issues. We are the lead hospitality trade association. ... It's not like we're not going to be working together."
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