Olive Garden manager wins back-to-back achievement awards

Running a restaurant is not easy work. Running it well is even more challenging, especially in a city with ample dining competition.


“There’s probably 50 to 100 restaurants just on Washington Road alone,” restaurant manager Steven McKinney said. “If you’re not excelling, guests have the right to go somewhere else – and they will.”

But customer retention isn’t a problem at McKinney’s establishment. Neither is revenue. Neither is employee turnover. The Olive Garden he manages at 2736 Washington Road just earned the casual-dining chain’s top performance award.

The “Diamond Club” designation that Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. recently bestowed on the 36-year-old Chicago-area native is his second in as many years. It recognizes the top 5 percent of performers in the nearly 850-unit Italian casual-dining chain.

“To me, the biggest reward is the recognition the team gets,” McKinney said of his 130 employees. “It’s not me who takes care of all these guests, it’s the team. The biggest thing I do is put them in the right positions.”

McKinney’s potency as restaurant ringleader is his length of service; he’s been a Darden employee since graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., with a food-service management degree nearly 15 years ago. He became an Olive Garden regular while courting his future wife, Kristen.

“It was her favorite restaurant,” he said. “We used to go every single Monday in Warwick (R.I.) for lunch or dinner. So you could say my career started then as a guest.”

Today, she works at Augusta’s LongHorn Steakhouse, another one of Darden Restaurants’ brands. The Fortune 500 company, which also owns the Bahama Breeze and Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen chains, was founded in Waycross, Ga., in the 1930s when Bill Darden opened a luncheonette called The Green Frog.

Darden transferred McKinney to Augusta eight years ago from Champaign, Ill. Before then, he worked at Olive Gardens in suburan Chicago and Indianapolis.

“I’ve been eating at Olive Garden my whole life,” McKinney said. “I eat it five times a week. Even if I wasn’t working for the company, I’d still be coming here to eat.”

Augusta’s Olive Garden, the chain’s 102nd location, opened in 1988. The area surrounding the eatery has been gradually acquired over the years by the Augusta National Golf Club. McKinney said customers often inquire whether the restaurant, which leases the property from an affiliated third party, will continue operating at its current address.

“I’ve been hearing rumors for eight years now,” he said. “I think one day (the club) will own this, too. It could be a year from now, it could be 20 years from now.”

But considering the restaurant’s longevity in Augusta, McKinney said he believes the company would simply develop another Olive Garden nearby.

“We’ll never leave this market,” he said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.