I knew that Red Lobster’s cheddar bay biscuits had some sort of magical power over some folks, but who knew they were such a pinnacle part of the black experience?
Actually, Dr. Jason Johnson did, which is why he penned this piece for the Pittsburgh Observer, entitled Red Lobster and The Continuing Demise of the Black Middle Class. If you couldn’t tell from the title, Johnson is a huge fan of the seafood restaurant chain. He writes fondly about how a Red Lobster in suburban St. Louis not only was his family’s go-to spot for all special dining events like graduation or getting that solo in the church choir, but also says it was a place where many low-income and working class families could gain access to not just seafood, but employment, in areas that were as segregated as they were deprived of oceans.
Red Lobster restaurants are part of a fading avenue of highly accessible nationally integrated chains that provided crucial first job experiences and second incomes for working class families especially in the African American community. For many working class kids whose parents or parent are living paycheck-to-paycheck, an after school job is not about building up a college resume, it’s a family financial necessity. When you’re responsible for your own clothes, maybe school supplies and from time to time helping out with rent, there are certain jobs that are essential to filling in that gap of $200-$250.00 a month that pops up every once in awhile.
Dr. Johnson predicts that the recent announcement by Darden Restaurants that they would sell off more than 700 Red Lobster chain restaurants from their portfolio could have a disproportionate impact on many poor black families:
I have no romanticized illusions about the quality of food or experience at Red Lobster. Once my family moved back east and we could get real crab cakes at the Baltimore Harbor, or go to any of a million local seafood /soul food places Red Lobster fell out of the rotation for family event dining. However the role that restaurant plays, both symbolically and financially in the lives of African American families can’t be understated. If you’re looking for today’s post church crowd you’d be better off going to Golden Corral where you can feed a family of 4 for $40.00 than Red Lobster. Perhaps with tighter paychecks and less job security we don’t have as much time for eating out at high end seafood places like we used to. Which is a shame for families and the kids searching for work as well.
As a former Darden/Red Lobster employee, I can personally attest to the strong gravitational pull the restaurant has among many in our community, particularly around Sunday afternoon, after church hours. And according to this archived article from the now defunct Atlanta Post called Understanding Red Lobster’s Popularity Among Black Diners (which says fried foods is the reason why black folks love Red Lobster so much), 42 percent of Darden employees are minorities, including Darden’s CEO, Clarence Otis Jr., who is also one of only five black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. And just like Dr. Johnson, I too grew up in a low-income family, which in rare celebratory moments, would get “cleaned up” for a night “out” to places like Red Lobster. The chain restaurant with the kitschy nautical décor may not be what comes to mind when you envision “fine dining,” but it did make the dining experience accessible for many folks on tight budgets. I mean, not everyone can afford Ruth’s Chris.
But I don’t want to overstate the important of Red Lobster in the community either, particularly its economic value. Not when the company has also been rated repeatedly as having one of the three worst company 401(k) retirement savings plans in the nation. And not when the company has openly vowed to slash employees’ hours to dodge the employer mandate to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. According to this article from last year in the Miami Herald, Darden was a major player in why the minimum wage for tipped workers has been at $2.13 an hour for the past 22 years (despite best efforts by some in Congress to try to raise it to more livable and sustainable minimum wage levels). As a company, it could also be a fair argument that Darden has done more to economically hurt the poor (and ultimately Red Lobster itself), than it has to actually empower them.
Still, there is no denying that the closing of Red Lobster does signify a cultural change. But perhaps it is one towards comfort and time as opposed to economics? Society in general appears to be shifting to more casual affairs. And with the rise of technology it has also meant that folks want to have their wants fulfilled more immediately. Those two factors are one of the major reasons why food trucks have become prime dining destinations in some more affluent and trendy parts of the country. Maybe chain dine-in restaurants like Red Lobster are losing their appeal because most folks are just not interested in waiting upwards of an hour or so for a booth when there is a Chipotle down the street?