Darden Restaurants CEO wins 2018 Gold Plate award

Gene Lee, chief executive of Olive Garden and The Capital Grille parent company Darden Restaurants, was named the 2018 foodservice operator of the year by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association at a gala event on Saturday night.

Lee accepted the honor, known as the Gold Plate, with a request the operators and suppliers in the audience never forget the opportunities they provide young people who aren’t interested in a conventional career or haven’t figured out what to do with their lives.

He cited himself as an example, mentioning that he started as a busboy. “I was a lost young person until the industry took me in,” he said. “How misunderstood we are as an industry because we can’t tell our story.”

He paid tribute to Darden’s COO and longtime colleague Dave George for helping to forge Darden’s turnaround and growth. “I’m up here because of Dave George,” he said.

Lee was chosen for the Gold Plate from a field of eight operators who’d been selected earlier as the year’s best leaders within their respective market segments. Lee had won that preliminary honor, the Silver Plate, in the full-service chain category.

The Silver Plate winners included operators in four segments of noncommercial foodservice: Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining services at University of Connecticut; Jim McGrody, culinary director of UNC Rex Healthcare; Michiel Bakker, director of Google Food; and Ken Yant, director of the school nutrition program at Gwinnett Public Schools.

Other Silver Plate recipients included Paul Brown, CEO of Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings parent Inspire Brands; Craig Huse, co-owner of the St. Elmo’s steakhouse in Indiana; Susan Terry, VP of culinary and F&B operations for Marcus Hotels; and Voni Woods, experience officer at Giant Eagle supermarkets.

The Silver Plate winners, along with past recipients, were honored at a banquet during the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago, during which the Gold Plate winner was revealed. 

The Silver and Gold Plate winners were chosen by a jury of past winners, industry VIPs and the editors of business-to-business publications serving the foodservice industry. A representative of Restaurant Business and FoodService Director was included in the jury. 

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