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ORLANDO-Darden Restaurants Inc., the locally based, 1,173-restaurant chain, continues to confound industry analysts as it reports first-quarter earnings of $62.2 million or 51 cents per diluted share on sales of $1.08 billion. Analysts had forecast a profit of 50 cents per share.

The company’s fiscal first quarter ended Aug. 26. The 51 cents per share was up 11% from the prior year and set a company record.

The $62.2 million after-tax earnings compared with $56.9 million or 46 cents per share on sales of $1.02 billion in first quarter 2000. Sales were up 6.2%.

“Another very strong quarter” is how Darden chairman/CEO Joe R. Lee characterized the company’s performance in a prepared statement.

The 475-unit Olive Garden division led Darden’s performance with a 4.2% increase in same-restaurant sales for the quarter, the 28th consecutive quarter of growth.

“Our best-ever guest satisfaction results; continued attention to operating excellence; and strong branding led to guest count and sales growth that once more surpassed the casual dining industry average,” Brad Blum, Olive Garden president, says in the same statement.

The 660-unit Red Lobster division reported a 3.2% increase in same-restaurant sales growth, its 15th consecutive growth quarter.

The 23-unit Bahama Breeze and the 10 Smokey Bones BBQ Sports Bar restaurants continued posting “solid sales and restaurant level earnings,” but Darden didn’t disclose numbers.

The company repurchased 1.8 million shares of its common during the quarter. There are 117.38 million shares outstanding.

The stock was trading this morning on the New York Stock Exchange at $24, down 79 cents from $24.79 yesterday. Volume was 463,600. The 52-week high-low is $32.50 and $19. The company’s market capitalization is $2.82 billion. The stock has a price/earnings ratio of 14.63.

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