Darden Helped Inspire the Stained Apron

Kim Stahler was a waitress at a Red Lobster through most of the 1990s.

She was so angry when she quit, she started a popular website called the Stained Apron, where restaurant servers of every stripe could air their seemingly endless frustrations about their jobs in often colorful ways.

"It was making me hate people," Ms. Stahler said of her waitressing job. "It was turning my heart black. I needed a creative outlet where I could start to lose those feelings."

Ms. Stahler appears to be free at last. Over the ensuing years, she went to school and became a college librarian in Pennsylvania. She no longer updates her website, but has left it up for posterity at www.stainedapron.com. Its timeless tales of nasty customers and heartless managers are worth a read.

All these years later, she said she is not surprised to see a lawsuit filed against Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. (NYSE:DRI) last week for allegedly violating federal labor laws.

In a Miami federal court, the company stands accused of underpaying thousands of employees at its popular eateries, including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, and Red Lobster.

"They make a tremendous profit by not paying proper wages," Ms. Stahler said.

Miami attorney David Lichter said his lawsuit against Darden outlines some common but illegal practices in the restaurant industry, not just at Darden. These can include forcing wait staff to work off the clock, denying them overtime, and making them spend too many hours on chores that do not earn tips, from filling salt shakers to cleaning window blinds.

Almost everyone knows there is no standing idle in the restaurant business, even when there isn't a customer to be served. "We've heard the phrase in the hospitality industry "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean,'" Mr. Lichter said.

"Certainly, Darden didn't invent this conduct," he continued. "It's not the first time a restaurant chain has been sued. .. We're hoping that the larger hospitality industry sits up and takes notice."

Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers called the lawsuit "baseless." Its allegations "fly in the face of our values and how we operate our business," he said. "Each of our brands complies with all federal and state labor and employment laws, and we're proud of our standing as an employer of choice."

On the plus side, Darden ranked No. 99 on Fortune Magazine's list of 100 best places to work for 2012. It also made the list last year. Fortune said the company is "a diversity champion; 30% of restaurant managers are minorities and 41% are women."

On the minus side, Darden has been named in similar lawsuits. And last year, following a Department of Labor investigation, the company was fined $30,800 and agreed to pay more than $25,000 in back wages to Olive Garden workers in Mesquite, Texas. Also last year, the company paid $27,000 in back wages and a fine of nearly $24,000 for labor violations involving 109 Red Lobster workers in Lubbock, Texas. Mr. Jeffers said these cases were "isolated instances," and did not result in any evidence that a manager asked an employee to work off the clock.

So far, Mr. Lichter's case is a tiny one. He has only two former Darden employees named in his lawsuit. And he is not making them available for interviews, even after sending out press releases to attract national attention to his case. Mr. Jeffers notes that neither of these former employees bothered to air their complaints internally, to which Mr. Lichter had no comment.

Mr. Lichter, however, said he has heard from more than 300 current and former Darden employees interested in more information about his case. And he seeks to represent more than 1,000.

For now, we'll just have to see how many Darden employees step up. Meantime, it is difficult to imagine a company doing so well, if the people who care for its customers are treated so poorly.

Darden stock has come roaring back from its 2008 low of about $14 a share. It now trades at nearly $55, close to its 52-week high. The company runs 2,000 restaurants, with more than 185,000 employees, and generates $8 billion in annual sales. If you haven't been served at a Darden-owned restaurant, you probably will be soon. It also owns Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, Eddie V's and, after a recent acquisition, Yard House.

It may be that the company is so big, it doesn't always run smoothly. It was a long time ago, but Ms. Stahler remembers her time at Red Lobster as something out of a satire.

"It was such high volume, a lot of corporate craziness, all these bad manager ideas," she said. "It was like the movie "Office Space," where your boss is always telling you to do stupid things.

"Most employees are trying to do a good job and get through their shift," she said. "If a manager tells them to do something, it's hard to say, "Oh, that's illegal." "These things need to be exposed and talked about," she said. "It's not "baseless," as they say. I think the employees will be successful."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com)