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ORLANDO-Darden Restaurants Inc., Orlando’s only Fortune 500 company, is looking for two experienced executives today to replace Gary Heckel and Bob Mock who headed separate divisions until both unexpectedly left the 1,211-unit restaurant chain Tuesday.

Through a spokesman, the company says the departures of the two executives are coincidental and unrelated to the financial health of the company which calls itself the world’s largest casual seafood dining organization.

The departures come as Darden plans to add another 10 restaurants encompassing about 200,000 sf to the 30-unit Bahama Breeze division in 2003 and 25 units totaling an estimated 250,000 sf to the 20-unit Smokey Bones division.

Heckel headed Bahama Breeze. Mock ran Smokey Bones. He has been a Darden executive for 30 years. Darden vice chairman Dick Rivera will run Bahama Breeze until a replacement for Heckel is found. Heckel, meanwhile, becomes a consultant to Darden for an unspecified period.

Brad Blum, another Darden vice chairman, will direct the Smokey Bones operation for an indefinite period until Mock either returns, resigns or retires, area restaurant consultants who follow Darden tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity.

“These departures have everybody baffled for the moment,” a Miami-based restaurant consultant tells GlobeSt.com. “The company itself is in great financial shape based on its latest results.”

For fiscal 2002 ended May 31, Darden showed net earnings of $237.8 million or $1.30 per diluted share compared to $197 million or $1.06 per diluted share in fiscal 2001, the company told the Securities and Exchange Commission Aug. 19 in filing its annual shareholders report.

At the same time, Darden chairman Joe Lee certified to the SEC that the company’s Form 10-K was accurate to the best of his knowledge.

The company’s common opened at $23.37 per share this morning on the New York Stock Exchange, down 99 cents from $24.36 on Aug. 19. The stock’s 52-week high-low is $29.76 and $15.40 per share.

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