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Darden Restaurants Gets the Job Done

There were a million reasons for Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI  ) to come up short during last night's fourth-quarter report. Food costs are climbing. The pressure to offer aggressive meal specials is bubbling in this bumpy economy. Higher gasoline prices are making even a trip out to eat a subject of debate.

I can keep going, but what's the point? It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Or, to keep things in terms that the parent of Red Lobster and Olive Garden could appreciate, it's like shooting lobsters in a crate or garlic breadsticks in a basket.

So what happens when the casual dining giant defies a laundry list of reasons why it should fail, delivering better-than-expected results? Well, I start by bowing my head in shame for assuming the worst, before breaking out in a round of applause.

Earnings from continuing operations climbed 7% to $0.72 a share at Darden during the period. Add back items related to its recent acquisition of LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille parent RARE Hospitality, and earnings would have clocked in at $0.78. Wall Street was looking for an adjusted profit of only $0.75 a share. As rough a year as this has been for the dining hospitality industry, Darden still managed to top analyst guesstimates in three of its fiscal year's four quarters.

Sales for the period rose 25% to $1.83 billion. That is also slightly ahead of the market's top-line target of $1.82 billion, but don't let the heady growth trick you. A good chunk of that growth spurt is the result of the RARE Hospitality purchase that closed back in October.

However, Olive Garden's comps did rise an amazing 5.8%. The casual Italian concept has now rattled off 55 straight quarters of year-over-year sales growth at the unit level. These streaks are getting harder to come by in these turbulent times. Chains like DineEquity's (NYSE: DIN  ) IHOP and Domino's Pizza's (NYSE: DPZ  ) international units are still chugging along, although BJ's Restaurants (Nasdaq: BJRI  ) had a streak of 45 quarters of comp gains come undone with a flat showing in its most recent report.

Olive Garden's success also comes at a time when other Italian concepts like California Pizza Kitchen (Nasdaq: CPKI  ) , Buca (Nasdaq: BUCA  ) , and Pizza Inn (Nasdaq: PZZI  ) have struggled. Darden's Red Lobster posted a small dip in comps, but ended the quarter on a comforting note with a positive May.

Darden's guidance for fiscal 2009 is upbeat. The company is looking for sales and earnings to inch 14% to 15% higher in its new year. Then again, the first half of the year will have the favorable comparison to when it had yet to acquire RARE. Fiscal 2009 will also have an extra week.

Still, why nitpick? Darden had so many crutches to lean on, and managed to rise above it.  

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz realizes that there are many better choices for Italian dining out there, but Olive Garden will do in a pinch. He does not own shares in any company mentioned in this story. He is part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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