Pass The Cheddar Bay Biscuits: How Significant Is Red Lobster To The Black Community?

17 Comments
January 13, 2014 ‐ By Charing Ball
Red Lobster

Red Lobster

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 ClassIf 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.

He writes:

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?

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  • Ranika Jones

    Red Lobster isn’t closing; they’re spinning off into a different company :) Cracker Barrel, Logan’s, and Chipotle have all done this in the past, and they’re thriving. It’s a good thing.

    For those of you complaining about wait times — trust me — as a wife of a general manager who has the best store in the region — I can say that the restaurant is doing something wrong if you have to wait more then 10-15 minutes even at the busiest times of the day.

  • Dee

    I like red lobster but never go because, like the author said, the wait times are crazy and not only on sunday after church smh.

  • Kristen

    I haven’t been to Red Lobster since I was in elementary school. I do buy their biscuit mix from the grocery store! OFF THE CHAINNNNNNN

  • hollyw

    I cannot tell a lie… when Harlem’s first Red Lobster opened up on November 11, 2013 (Veteran’s Day), I was there with bells on. Facebook’d it. Me in line. Me getting my order. My first bite into the cheddar bay biscuits. They had a dj out on the block, was handing out free biscuits and errthang!!

    • BabyBlue

      I wish I was in Harlem.

      • hollyw

        Girl, no you don’t! They opened a Joe’s Crab Shack months before that on the next block over from Red Lobster, and a Applebee’s two blocks in the other direction yrs ago, each w/happy hours (Joe’s is literally all day), they trying to kill us!!

        • BabyBlue

          They are trying to kill y’all. Geesh

  • chanela

    LOL this is hilarious because i was JUST telling my non black boyfriend to just take me to red lobster for valentines day to celebrate both valentines day AND black history month. ahaha

  • newdnewd

    Red Lobster was my first job and this article did have valid points.

  • MarriedMomOf2

    My family took me to Red Lobster after elementary and high school graduation ceremonies. My first job was at Red Lobster as a waitress for 2 years while in college. Plus the cheddar biscuits are off the chain, my hubby, mother and I are addicted to them, wish they sell them at a grocery stores like TGIFridays and Taco Bell sell their stuff.

    • newdnewd

      They do, in Walmart! I died a little inside.

      • MarriedMomOf2

        Thanks, I’m going after I get off work tomorrow, LBVS.

    • Trisha_B

      They do! You can find the box of mix in stores! They are just as delicious !!!

    • Lovette

      Sweety they now have the “Red Lobster Cheddar Bay” mix in Walmart, Sams Club, & on Amazon ;-)

      • MarriedMomOf2

        Okay I get it! I post the comment yesterday when I didn’t know they made a mix of it and got them today already thanks to 2 other people replying. I haven’t been to a Walmart and a Sam’s Club in years until today. I’m more of a Target customer because I live near one in Chicago.

  • Alisha Dixon

    Did he just call Red Lobster “high end seafood”? I can’t…

  • Jan

    i happen to actually like red lobster… do i go often nope ! but when i do , i want to biscuits and artichoke dip