TOP 100 CHAIN PROFILE
America’s favorite seafood concept is now 35 years old. But instead of
growing old and tired, the country’s most successful seafood chain is refreshing
itself with a new look and a new menu.
The casual dining seafood gem in the Orlando-based Darden Restaurant’s crown is undergoing a thorough polishing inside and out. Last year, the company named a new president and culinary vice president, launched a dramatic menu transformation, and unveiled a dynamic new restaurant design.
There is much to celebrate in the year ahead.
Edna Morris, a foodservice veteran who most recently served as Red Lobster’s executive vice president for operations, was named president on April 1, 2002. She replaced Dick Rivera, who is now president and chief operating officer of Darden Restaurants.
Prior to her Red Lobster appointment, Morris served as executive vice president of Advantica Restaurant Group, and cut her teeth in other restaurant groups, including Quincy’s Family Steakhouse, City Range
Morris’s experience in human resources and her commitment to excellence in foodservice are evident in her management philosophy. "I think people should be encouraged to be themselves," Morris explains. "I want Red Lobster to be a place of open and honest communication, mutual respect and strong teamwork."
One of the newest team members is Keith Keogh, the company’s senior vice president of culinary and beverage excellence, who spent little time getting his feet wet when he joined the company late last spring. By December, Keogh had begun Red Lobster’s "countdown" to Menu 2007, a menu metamorphosis designed to bring more flavorful dining experiences to the restaurant’s firm menu foundation.
"We’re going back to our roots of discovery," Keogh says. "When I was growing up and went to Red Lobster, it was the first place I ever saw snow crab, the first place I ever saw Maine Lobster. A lot of seafood was introduced to America in Red Lobster’s early days. We’ve zeroed our development team into creating new, bolder flavors, international preparations, and opening up the floodgates. It’s okay to be ‘out there’ a little.
y all accounts, 2002 was a banner year for seafood giant Red Lobster. The company stacked up a ten-year high guest-count—140 million in fiscal 2002—and posted a record $2.34 billion in sales, a 7.1 percent increase over 2001. But as the company prepares for this month’s 35th anniversary, don’t expect to find execs kicking back and celebrating over a basket of fried clams.
"We are creating the standard for fresh fish and seafood in America," Keogh says.
At six-month intervals, new entrees, appetizers and desserts will appear on Red Lobster menus that are designed to give patrons a broader choice beyond the tried-and-true deep-fried Walt’s Fried Shrimp and Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
"Those items, and others like them, are on the menu and have been from day one," Keogh says. "They’re always going to be there."
Keogh said the key to change is in respecting core menu values. "There are ways to introduce even our core guests to new flavors, and then to move them to a place of security with new preparations. This is an evolution, not a revolution."
The menu now boasts a variety of new dishes, including:
Sesame ginger-seared fresh fish with Asian vegetables and noodles that highlights the growing popularity of Asian cuisine. It features fresh snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms and red bell peppers.
Pan-seared fresh fish with cilantro lime cream sauce that features fish seared with Cajun spices. The bold cilantro and lime flavors are reminiscent of the Southwestern United States. The dish includes fresh bell peppers, lime juice and cilantro and is served with wild rice pilaf and fresh seasonal vegetables.
Grilled fresh fish with tomato-basil vinaigrette served with grilled asparagus. The fish is nestled on top of wild rice pilaf.
Grilled salmon and lobster mashed potatoes. Red Lobster chefs developed this dish especially for its signature annual lobster promotion—Lobsterfest.
In addition, Keogh says the menu now highlights steak pairings, using top-choice, hand-selected, well-aged Angus beef.
The company completed months of training and kitchen equipment analysis to prepare for its foray into steaks. "This offered us the opportunity to retrain and to shore up our ‘grilling side,’ which will be a major component as we move forward on seafood, as well as steaks, chicken and everything else," Keogh says.
The new menu also features princess lobster chops and more wines by-the-glass, which Keogh says will be promoted in the near future with other pairings. At press time, Keogh said the company was developing international twists on lobster that will premiere during this month’s Lobsterfest promotion, which has been wildly successful in the past.
The company will continue to use festivals like Lobsterfest and Summer Festival of Crab to test new concepts and will then roll the most popular items onto the main menu.
"Every day and at every restaurant guests will be able to get different types of fresh fish, such as salmon, trout, grouper and tilapia," says John Altomare, senior vice president of Operations and Menu Development for Red Lobster. "And they will be able to dine on a variety of superb preparations. We know that guest increasingly want simple, elegant preparations with bold flavors. They’ll get that at Red Lobster."
But long before they get a glimpse at the menu, some patrons will notice a drastic change in the Red Lobster restaurant design. The gray, wharf-style exterior with dark wood interiors is going out with the tide. An upscale, bright, open and airy restaurant with a residential feel will greet Red Lobster diners in the near future. The "Coastal Home" design debuted in Orlando, Kissimmee and Destin, Fla., and in Concord, N.Y., late last summer.
"We’re very excited about this new look," Morris says. "Coastal Home gives our restaurants a brighter, more colorful, more open feel, while creating an atmosphere of authentic, fun relaxation at a seaside retreat."
Coastal Home restaurants have a lightly colored exterior, copper-colored roofs and a colorful interior accented by jewel tones and new furnishings designed to give guests the feel of being on a coastal vacation. Other features include: A wide open floor plan that includes a vestibule with views of the pantry area and kitchen; a two-tiered, cascading water-filled live lobster tank; a central bar with fish-shaped tables and dramatically lit sealife sculptures; and brightly painted fish sculptures on the restaurant walls.
The centrally located, and prominently displayed bar represents a big departure for Red Lobster. When conservative, family-friendly General Mills acquired the five-unit seafood chain from founder Bill Darden in 1970, bars were tucked in the back, out of sight of the main dining areas. But in 1995, General Mills spun off its restaurant division, including Red Lobster to form Darden Restaurants as an independent Fortune 500 corporation. The company now focuses on increasing its wine list and promoting its bar as part of the dining experience.
In addition to the new furnishings and exterior, Red Lobster Coastal Homes have a newly designed T-line kitchen that is more efficient, allows for more designated seating, and improves communication and coordination among the crew.
Complete Coastal Home units are about 7,100 square feet, which is about 100 square feet less than the traditional, wharf-style unit. Sixty tables can accommodate 238 guests. Though he declined to discuss construction costs, Altomare says the new design costs about $27 less per square foot than the wharf design.
"Our guests have an emotional tie to the ocean," Altomare says. "It’s a place they go to relax and connect, to vacation, to enjoy great times with family and friends. Our Coastal Home look reinforces these feelings and memories."
And according to the company, they’ll get those memories for a moderate price. Checks average $10 to $12 for lunch, and $14 to $18 for dinner. Though it is too early to tell what impact the new Coastal Home restaurants will have on sales, the company expects same-store sales to increase by three to five percent per year in the chain’s 669 units throughout the Unites States and Canada. Average annual sales per unit for fiscal year 2002 were $3.5 million.
Morris says the evolution was a necessary one as the company focuses on luring MAHIs (Middle-Age, Higher Income) diners to their restaurants. In addition, increasing competition from Bonefish Grill, the dinner-only sea-food concept that has infused the Florida market, and Dallas-Based Rockfish Seafood Grill spurred Red Lobster officials to rise to the challenge.
The company is betting heavily on this new approach. While all new Red Lobsters will be built in the Coastal Home style, it’s renovating 134 of its existing units in 17 markets. Eight to 12 new units will be completed over each of the next few years.
Over the next five years, Keogh and Morris are philosophical about what Red Lobster’s transformation will mean to its guests and staff.
"Red Lobster should mean not only a very good value for seafood that they probably can’t get anywhere else, but there should be a sense of discovery," Keogh explains. "I hope they come with a sense of anticipation about what they are going to see on the menu."
"We have award-winning chefs and great leadership," Morris says. "I want us to earn the distinction of being truly "first in class" in casual dining. I want us to deliver a fresh and exciting seafood experience and I want us to be a strong and vibrant organization that truly ‘treasures’ every interaction with our guests and crew."
Grilled basil-infused fresh fish with arugula salad that features herbs and flavors reminiscent of Italy. The fish is infused with fresh basil oil and is presented on an arugula salad dressed with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.