William Darden  (1918 – 1994)

The Man Who Brought Seafood to America’s Heartland

William Darden was born in 1918 in the little town of Waycross, Georgia.  In 1938 he opened a restaurant in that very same town.  It was called the Green Frog.  The thing that made the 25-seat restaurant unique wasn’t the food.  It was Darden, and the fact that at a time of Jim Crow laws across the south, were water fountains, schools, hotels and virtually everything else was segregated, he didn’t care.  He opened his restaurant to everyone and let them sit where they wanted, regardless of race.  Blacks and whites eating together in a restaurant in the 1930s south was almost unheard of. But at the Green Frog luncheonette restaurant in Waycross, GA, it was.

The Green Frog was so successful (It finally closed down in 1981) that it gave Darden the resources to grow.  In the following decades Darden would buy and operate Howard Johnson restaurants and hotels across Florida as well as various other stand-alone restaurants. 

Thirty years later William Darden would open the one that would become a household name across the United States: Red Lobster.

Inspired by one of those stand-alone restaurants, Gary’s Duck Inn, an Orlando seafood restaurant he bought in 1963 and noticing that seafood was the most popular item in his other restaurants, Darden wondered if there was an opportunity for a seafood restaurant away from the beach in your average suburban community. In 1968 he opened one to find out.  The first Red Lobster Inn restaurant was opened in Lakewood, Florida, a town in the middle of the state, to the east of Tampa. 

As Darden soon discovered, there was indeed a market for seafood away from the coast.  He quickly opened up four more restaurants and had designs on many more. He soon dropped the Inn from the name, but he’d been so successful that he had no trouble purchasing brand new signs.  It was then that General Mills knocked at his door.  They liked what he was doing so much that they bought him out, created a restaurant division inside their company and put him in charge.  From there Red Lobster became a rocket ship, with the company doing $400 million in sales a decade later.

In 1982 Darden introduced a second restaurant with a very similar model but a different focus, Italian.  That restaurant was the Olive Garden. Together, Red Lobster and Olive Garden made the Darden Restaurants unit of General Mills one of the largest sit-down restaurant operators in the United States.  And they began expanding internationally as well.

Darden retired from the restaurant business a year later and passed away in 1994. His legacy lives on with Darden Restaurants and Red Lobster – which was spun off in 2014 – operating 2,500 restaurants around the world.  He is considered one of the founders of the casual dining market, which sits between fast food and fine dining. 

William Darden made it his mantra that everyone, his employees, customers, venders and managers, should be treated with respect. It was that mantra and his courage as a 19 year old entrepreneur that generated the success which he leveraged to build an empire.  By breaking the taboo of segregation in his little town of Waycross and then bringing it with him as he grew, respect and courage are as much of his legacy as the restaurant signs that crisscross the country.