Red Lobster: A Sea of Changes
As I button up my crisp, extra-starched white oxford shirt and wrap my black pinstriped serving apron around my waist, I am ready to head into work. Although I have been at Red Lobster for over two years, I still get that nervous feeling I remember on my first day. This was my first job, and it can be intimidating to work at the third busiest Red Lobster in the nation, the one with two-hour wait times four days a week with guests pouring out of the restaurant in droves. Yes, that one.
Before I head to the front door, I take in the calmness of the parking lot outside. I imagine that once I open those doors for the 364th time, I will see genuine smiles on the faces of every co-worker and manager. These smiles reflect employees who care about their job, Seafood Experts who take pride in serving quality food to what seems like endless numbers of people, and of course those who are making an unbelievable amount of money each shift. The heart of the house (HOH) is staffed with multiple Certified Grill Masters, two of whom compete in Grill Master competitions annually.
Patrons of Red Lobster are enjoying their specialty drinks made at the bar while children squeal at the live Maine lobsters swimming in the tank. The restaurant is booming with birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, graduations, and more. Working at Red Lobster is like working for the Utopia of the restaurant industry. (No, it’s not just for the Cheddar Bay Biscuits.)
Unfortunately, changes were made – some for the good and others not so much. Every Red Lobster was renovated to the new Bar Harbor concept with beautiful portraits of lighthouses, sail boats, and all that reminded guests of the New England coastal areas. The carpets were new, countertops were black granite with shimmering pieces of silver throughout, and wood-fire grills were installed along with upgrades in culinary technology. The stone walls outside complemented the restaurant by creating a warm, inviting seaside atmosphere.
On the other hand, as a way to appeal to all audiences, Red Lobster increased its non-seafood items on the menu from 8% to over 25%. Such entrées included chicken wings, burgers, pork chops, a southwest chicken pizza and sandwich, two chicken pasta dishes, and vegetable skewers for those who are vegetarian. At the same time, longtime favorites disappeared: King Crab legs, gumbo, NY Strip Oscar, and Chef’s Lobster and Shrimp pasta.
Along with entrée changes, Red Lobster altered the pricing structure by increasing the number of lower-cost dishes from 40% to approximately 60%. The “fine-dining for the middle class” restaurant was now offering fewer high-priced entrées which ultimately decreased average checks and directly affected the server’s income. At the same time, a server’s security blanket for large parties – the 18% gratuity – was eradicated. Because of these changes, many experienced servers began seeking employment elsewhere.
On top of all of this, the decline in guest traffic was becoming apparent. There were fewer guests in the dining room and even fewer staff members to serve them. The busser position was eliminated and replaced with service assistants. The new positions were set in place to help improve guest experiences while the number of tables a server was responsible for increased. The idea was that while servers were being more attentive to guests’ entrée choices, food allergies, special occasions, and refills, the service assistants would walk food, grab condiments, and clean tables. Both positions were structured to work hand-in-hand to improve guest experience and hopefully increase guest traffic. Unfortunately, the new position had the new title, but the same job description.
So, how can Red Lobster get back to differentiating itself from others in the restaurant industry and still remain competitive?
Sure, there are plenty of good ideas for improving Red Lobster’s reputation (cue comments from the endless snow crab leg fiasco), but replating the Fresh Fish so that it stacks higher on the plate resembling fine-dining establishments will not be one of them. The presentation of a meal will not keep guests coming back, but quality seafood, engaging staff, innovative management, and a tad bit of gold just might do the trick.
My hope is that Golden Gate Capital, which recently acquired the Red Lobster concept from Darden Restaurants Inc., can bring Bill Darden’s original 1968 vision into the 21st century. Red Lobster should not focus on reinventing popcorn shrimp or how fish should be positioned on a plate, but instead reinventing perceived notions guests have about its restaurants.
Red Lobster’s new CEO, Kim Lopdrup, has already started the movement (literally) towards improving Red Lobster by moving its headquarters to downtown Orlando, FL. Non-seafood items will drop to 10%–15% of the menu, premium entrees priced above $30 are here to stay, and new Fresh Fish additions will be available: Ahi Tuna, Swordfish, and Red Snapper. Maybe now, we can stop “Sea[ing] Food Differently” and start seeing it the same, just better.
(No Cheddar Bay Biscuits were harmed in the making of this article. Yet.)