Free breadsticks and reasons for hope at Olive Garden

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FILE - This June 27, 2016 file photo shows an Olive Garden restaurant in Methuen, Mass. Darden Restaurants says every hourly employee will earn at least $10 per hour including tips starting March 29, 2021. That will rise to $12 per hour in 2023. Orlando, Florida-based Darden, which also owns LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddars Scratch Kitchen and others, is also giving one-time bonuses of up to $300 to nearly 90,000 hourly employees. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

The company that runs the Olive Garden chain is raising pay for its workers and handing out one-time bonuses, a sign of optimism from the kind of casual sit-down restaurant that has been devastated by the pandemic.

Darden Restaurants said Thursday that every hourly restaurant worker will earn at least $10 per hour including tips as of Monday. That will rise to $11 per hour in 2022 and $12 per hour in 2023.

Darden, which also runs LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen and other chains, said it will spend an additional $17 million one-time bonuses for its nearly 90,000 hourly employees. Workers will receive between $100 and $300 depending on how many hours they work each week.

The company on Thursday reported a surprisingly strong quarter and the pay hikes signal both confidence about an economic recovery and potentially increased competition for workers as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic.

A year ago this month, Darden closed all of its dining rooms. Casual dining chains were especially hard hit because unlike pizza places or fast foot chains, they had neither drive up windows nor well-established delivery service to offset the loss of business due to pandemic restrictions.

At one point, same-store sales at Darden, a key reading in retail for the health of a company, plunged 75%.

About 99% of Darden's dining rooms have since re-opened with at least partial capacity. The rapid vaccine rollout and stimulus checks are fueling sales this year. For the week ending March 21, same-store sales for the Orlando, Florida, company rose 5% compared with the same period in 2019.

About a third of Darden's sales still come from carryout orders, but the company expects that to shift back to the dining room as more people are vaccinated and the economy recovers.