On Red Lobster and the Slow Death of Casual Dining

If there’s one menu item that sums up the appeal of Red Lobster, it’s the cheese biscuits. Of course, it’s not terribly likely that a place called Orange Biscuit would grow to become the “world’s largest casual dining seafood restaurant,” with more than 700 restaurants. All of those restaurants are located in North America, granted, but hey, Major League Baseball still calls it the World Series.

Still, like its until-last-week corporate partner, Olive Garden, Red Lobster is well aware of perhaps the most important feeling a restaurant can arouse in the cost-conscious middle-class consumer: satiety. It’s a food-induced completeness, one that doesn’t just mean your T-shirt is now clinging ever so slightly tighter to your stomach, but also results in earnest over-the-cheque conversation about the last time, dear, that you had this kind of meal, you know, for just $30—$30 for all that shrimp, plus the lobster tail. It’s the warm-insides completeness that keeps Red Lobster a prime destination for suburban special occasions, and there are few easier ways to achieve it than to provide a bottomless supply of freshly reheated fat-soaked bread baskets, so distinctively aromatic the mere mention brings up a mental slideshow of birthdays nine through 14, complete with clapping waiters and a side order of snow crab legs that gave my father as much joy to assent to as I got from cracking them.

That particular formula is by now so familiar as to not really appear as a formula, just the basic facts of dozens of chains with equally sized lit-up signs above the door and on towering signposts off six-lane commuter arterials. But it owes a decent amount of its provenance to Red Lobster, which was just spun off by parent company Darden Restaurants for $2.1 billion to a capital equity firm, which is a phrase we don’t normally associate with all-you-can-eat shrimp. Actually, “all you can eat” is a phrase we might not associate with shrimp for much longer, thanks to a disease-induced price spike that is at least part of the reason Red Lobster was hurting enough to get spun off. The other part is in the much-heralded slow death of the casual dining market, its profits steadily eaten (sorry) by the “fast casual” segment of Chipotle and such.

Casual dining as a thing barely existed when Bill Darden opened the Red Lobster Inn in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968. Dining out was still a relatively rare thing, split mostly between the dressed-up finery of an evening at some probably French-ish place and the workaday world of lunchers/travellers served by coffee counters and automats. Darden himself raised the money to found Red Lobster by trading up in prestige from a lunch counter he opened in Waycross, Georgia, in 1938. Aided by stuff like like air-conditioning and easy car travel, which made nearby Florida a popular tourist spot, he built the business into a boomer, eventually buying a stake in Gary’s Duck Inn, a seafood restaurant in Orlando.

The popularity of Gary’s was what convinced him that this seafood thing might be worth exploring: non-canned seafood was still something eaten almost exclusively on the coast, but the growing availability of refrigerated trucking made it relatively easy to get it inland—to great success. He almost certainly also took some inspiration from Howard Johnson’s, the orange-topped restaurant that really pioneered cozy, casual dining, albeit with a traveller’s twist: as you might remember from that one episode of Mad Men, HoJo’s were a staple of interstate life, 28 flavours of ice cream and simple, hearty meals that fuelled families on these new-fangled road trip things.

Darden’s aim was to build a seafood restaurant that everyone could experience, which was why he chose Lakeland, which sits between potential road-trippers in Orlando and Tampa Bay, but was small and remote enough to be a sort of New York for casual dining: if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere with a highway turn-off. The first one was so successful it had to expand less than a month after opening; the next couple, which dropped the “Inn,” did so well that less than three years after its founding, Red Lobster was bought by General Mills, and was eventually made the flagship of its Restaurants division.

The idea of restaurant as corporate citizen was also a relatively new one: Howard Johnson’s and the concurrently budding fast food joints grew up into behemoths, but Red Lobster was among the first to be bought as a brand name and pumped-up with corporate efficiency. It grew, spreading across the south, hitting Canada in 1980 and for a time becoming the most popular casual restaurant in North America.

It also innovated: though they didn’t strictly invent them, they have a claim on popularizing both snow crab legs and popcorn shrimp, to say nothing of the fact that the gargantuan logistics infrastructure that comes with being a chain (just look at Darden’s list of DISTINGUISHED suppliers) helped make it easier for seafood of any description to find its way inland. It even spun off: General Mills founded Olive Garden in 1982, which eventually surpassed its parent (both were spun off with a few other chains to form Darden, named for Bill, in 1995).

Those two combined still account for some 1,500 restaurants in the States, though even that number is dwarfed by their competitors: T.G.I. Friday’s, which began franchising the year after Red Lobster was bought, is now bigger than both, and that doesn’t even begin to get into Chili’s and California Pizza Kitchen and Ponderosa and Kelsey’s (go Canada!) and all those other restaurants you spot huddled around every power centre on the edge of town, differing mostly in exactly what kind of bread they bring you to fill up on while you wait for your unfrozen meal.

And, of course, which non-licensed song the waitstaff clap along to for your birthday.

Image via Mike Mozart / Flickr