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ORLANDO-If the seafood industry doubts its product is being consumed by Americans, it need only review the latest financials from locally based Darden Restaurants Inc., which is operating 1,168 company-owned locations in the United States and Canada and 34 licensed restaurants in Japan.

The company contends it is the world’s largest casual seafood restaurant company and has the numbers to back up that claim.

In an Aug. 16, 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Darden reports fiscal 2001 net earnings of $197 million or $1.59 per diluted share ($1.64 basic share) on sales of $4.02 billion versus $173,1 million or $1.31 per diluted share ($1.35 basic share) on revenue of $3.7 billion in fiscal 2000.

Net earnings were up 13.8%.The company’s fiscal year ended May 27. Darden’s restaurant operating profit alone was $886.43 million in 2001; $800.55 million in 2000; and $713.19 million in 1999.

In 1999, Darden’s net earnings totaled $135.3 million or 96 cents per diluted share (99 cents basic share) on sales of $3.45 billion. Sales in 2001 were up 8.6% over 2000. In 2000, sales increased 7% over 1999.

The nation’s softening economy apparently isn’t evident at the Darden cash register.

“For 2001, 2000 and 1999, management does not believe that inflation has had a significant overall effect on the company’s operations,” the SEC filing states. “As operating expenses increase, management believe the company has historically been able to pass on increased costs through menu price increases and other strategies.”

Darden’s total rent expense in 2001 was $55.93 million for its 1,168 restaurants. Total minimum rent was $40 million. Added to that figure were restaurant percentage rent based on sales, $3.16 million; restaurant equipment minimum rent, $8.38 million; restaurant rent averaging expense, a negative $510,000; transportation equipment, $2.32 million; office equipment, $1.32 million; office space, $1.02 million; and warehouse space, $227,000.

The company’s long-term debt includes $150 million of unsecured 6.375% notes due in February 2006 and $100 million of unsecured 7.125% debentures due in February 2016.

In September 2000, Darden also issued $150 million of unsecured 8.375% senior notes due in September 2005. Proceeds were used to repay short-term debt.

The company’s publicly issued long-term debt carries ratings of “Baa1″ from Moody’s Investors Service; a “BBB+” from Standard & Poor’s Corp.; and also a “BBB+” from Fitch Investors Service. The company’s common stock has a 52-week high-low of $32.50 and $16.62.

The stock closed Aug. 20 on the New York Stock Exchange at $28.14, up 44 cents (1.59%) on volume of 523,800 and a price/earnings ratio of 17.70. The company’s market capitalization total $3.32 billion.

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