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ORLANDO-Locally based Darden Restaurants Inc. plans 50 to 55 new locations in the coming fiscal year, after having opened 71 during the past year. The proprietor of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse chains, among others, posted a 9% sales increase for the year ending May 31, totaling $7.2 billion.

Earnings for the year fell slightly to $372 million, but included a 21% boost in the fourth quarter to $123 million. Sales for the fourth quarter rose 8% over the year to $2 billion, attributed to new restaurant growth, including $890 million from Olive Garden and $734 million from Red Lobster.

Darden’s restaurant chain in the US and Canada totaled 1,773 locations at the end of the past fiscal year. The company added a net of 38 Olive Gardens, 16 LongHorns and 10 Red Lobsters over the past year, along with smaller numbers of other concepts such as Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

“In a challenging economic environment where consumers have reduced their dining-out frequency and there was a significant amount of competitive discounting, our brands performed much better than the industry,” Clarence Otis, Darden chairman and CEO, stated in a release. He termed the latest results as “our finest hour” in an interview with CNBC, adding that its chains are resisting efforts by other restaurant groups to cut prices and portions.

Darden forecasts that its earnings for the coming year will be down between 2% and 8%, while revenue will range within 1% of fiscal 2009. Results for the past year were affected by integration costs and accounting adjustments related to its October 2007 acquisition of Rare Hospitality International Inc., which added LongHorn to Darden’s restaurant lineup.

Darden has scheduled its annual shareholders meeting for Sept. 25 at the Hyatt Regency Orlando.

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