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by Steven Barboza

Why is Red Lobster so popular, particularly among African Americans?

The chain – a key brand of multi-chain operator Darden Restaurants, which serves 400 million meals each year and has $7 billion in annual sales – consistently ranks high in national restaurant surveys. Industry analysts chalk up Red Lobster’s success to good management and fine-tuned marketing campaigns such as the “Lobsterfest” promo. Darden’s spokesman ties company success to a message point on how Darden focuses on the total “guest experience,” adding, “We nurture a relationship with all of our guests,” not just African Americans.

All of the above might be true. But there could well be a simpler reason for the chain’s popularity among black people: eating at Red Lobster may be the next best thing to attending a fish fry.

The chain’s dinner menu alone, filled with reasonably priced items, is a kind of nirvana for diners who simply cannot resist fried food. An informal review turned up some 30 fried or partly fried dishes, from popcorn shrimp to hand-battered fish and chips. And it’s a well-known fact that fried fish is deeply rooted in the African American culinary experience – a tried-and-true staple of “soul food” cookery.

“The reality of it is Red Lobster isn’t the best seafood restaurant to go to, nor is the quality of it the best, but it’s economically correct and it doesn’t taste like dirt,” said Jeffery Lewis, owner of the Houston-based Little Black Box Company, a catering concern specializing in gourmet Southern comfort food. “It’s definitely food for the masses,” he added, saying Red Lobster is one step removed from fast food.

Darden is among the world’s largest casual dining companies, with more than 180,000 employees. “We are one of the largest private buyers of seafood in the world,” said Rich Jeffers, Darden spokesman. “We look at our guests holistically and we’re proud of the fact that we have a diverse guest base, and we have a diverse workforce that reflects that guest base.” He said 42% of Darden employees are minorities, but would not divulge how many were African American.

It’s difficult to gauge just how popular Red Lobster is among African Americans. Jeffers refused to divulge guest demographics and “for competitive reasons” wouldn’t even say which states, let alone which restaurants, rang up the most Red Lobster business.

Still, it is a well-known “open secret” that the casual dining chain ranks high on the dining-out lists of black people across the nation. Crystal Swiggett, who worked as a server in a suburban Cleveland Red Lobster for two and a half years, noted that black guests kept the joint jumping. The restaurant was located in Beachwood, Ohio, where the population is 87% white and 9% black, but the restaurant’s clientele was a complete flip flop of the town’s racial makeup.

“Ninety percent of guests were black,” Swiggett said. “It was the busiest restaurant I ever worked in. It stayed busy.” Though Swiggett no longer works at Red Lobster, she dines there regularly with her family.  She has cut back on fried fish, saying, “Family health issues led me to start thinking more about that.” Her father recently died of congestive heart failure, she said.

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