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ORLANDO-The 1,168-unit, locally based Darden Restaurants Inc., which bills itself as the largest seafood restaurant chain in North America, may be starting to feel the effects of a customer slowdown possibly generated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax scare and the economy, according to September sales figures the company reported.

Although the chain’s two top divisions, Red Lobster and Olive Garden, posted monthly gains in sales, guest counts and pricing, the percentages are lower than last year at this time. September is the first month of Darden’s fiscal 2002 second quarter.

The 660-unit Red Lobster division posted same-restaurant sales gains of 4% to 5%; a guest count increase of 2% to 3%; and a 2% increase in pricing.

But in September 2000, the 1,173-unit seafood chain had a 6% to 7% same-restaurant sales increase; a 3% to 4% increase in guest counts; and a 2% jump in pricing from the previous month.

The 475-unit Olive Garden division logged same-restaurant sales increases of 3% to 4%; a 2% increase in guest counts; a 2% to 3% increase in pricing; and a 1% reduction in check average due to menu mix-changes.

In September 2000, however, Olive Garden units that had been operating for at least a year, had an 8% to 9% sales increase, driven by a 1% increase in guests counts, a 3% increase in pricing and a 4% to 5% increase in check average from menu-mix changes.

The numbers show Olive Garden units improved their guest count this September from last September.

Besides Red Lobster and Olive Garden, other Darden divisions are Bahama Breeze, 23 units; and Smokey Bones BBQ Sports Bar, 10 units.

Darden’s common was trading at noon on the New York Stock Exchange today at $30.52 per share, up 37 cents from $30.15 Oct. 22. Volume was 204,900.

The stock’s 52-week high-low is $32.50 and $19. There are 116.5 million shares outstanding. The company’s market capitalization is $3.6 billion. The stock’s price/earnings ratio is 18.61.

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