Red Lobster — for the non-seafood lover in you
By CANDICE CHOI The Associated Press October 3, 2012 6:42PM
This undated image provided by Red Lobster shows the restaurant's new Chicken with Portobello dish. The chain that brought seafood to the masses is hoping to broaden its appeal by revamping its menu on Oct. 15 to boost the number of dishes that cater to diners who don't want seafood, including lighter options such as salads. Red Lobster also is increasing the number of dishes that cost less than $15 to attract customers who have cut back on spending. (AP Photo/Red Lobster)
Updated: November 5, 2012 11:36AM
NEW YORK — Red Lobster isn’t just for the seafood lover in you. It’s also for that eater in every group who just wants a chicken dish.
The chain that brought seafood to the masses is hoping to broaden its appeal by revamping its menu on Oct. 15 to boost the number of dishes that cater to diners who don’t want seafood, including lighter options such as salads. Red Lobster also is increasing the number of dishes that cost less than $15 to attract customers who have cut back on spending.
The chain, which is owned by Darden Restaurants Inc., the parent of Olive Garden, says a quarter of the items on its menu will be non-seafood dishes, up from 8 percent. And the number of lower-cost entrees will rise to about 60 percent from the current 40 percent.
A lot hinges on Red Lobster’s makeover. After a long streak of healthy growth that began in the late 1980s, the casual dining segment has struggled to grow in the past few years because of oversaturation of those restaurants. People also are eating out less or opting for places such as Five Guys burgers, Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. that fall somewhere between traditional sit-down restaurants and fast-food chains. Red Lobster in particular has struggled, with traffic at restaurants falling in 12 of the past 24 months.
When asked about the risks involved making such a dramatic change to the menu, Clarence Otis, CEO at Darden, said, “the biggest risk would be to not change.”
Eliminating the ‘veto vote’
The idea behind Red Lobster rolling out more non-seafood options is to eliminate the “veto vote,” or that one person in a family or group of friends that rules out Red Lobster because they don’t like seafood.
Since opening its doors in 1968, Red Lobster always has had a steak dish or two on the menu. If people want a salad, the current menu offers a Caesar. That’s it. But diners who aren’t in the mood for seafood likely want a little more variety. So when the chain began the revamp about two years ago, it started by figuring out how to best fill in the gaps.
“We thought, what are the areas we’re missing?” said Michael LaDuke, Red Lobster’s executive chef.
LaDuke and his team of chefs spent two weeks in Charlotte, N.C. to test about 50 dishes in three restaurants. They wanted feedback from diners, but also from the kitchen staff on any problems they encountered executing the dishes. For example, they decided that pineapple salsa should be prepared twice a day, instead of once, to keep it fresher.
Once various adjustments to sauces and cooking times were made, the test was broadened to 40 of its more than 700 restaurants in North America. Diners who ordered the new items were given surveys to fill out whether they liked the dish, what they would change and whether they’d get it again.
One of the dishes that made the cut is a Parmesan-crusted Chicken Alfredo that’s served over corkscrew pasta; it’s for diners who want a chicken dish that’s a little more decadent. The Island Grilled Mahi-Mahi and Shrimp, clocking in at a modest 510 calories, is for those who want to go lighter.
Pork chops are on the menu for the first time. Ditto for the Roasted Vegetable Skewers, the first vegetarian entree that isn’t salad or pasta. And there are now three salads, including the Bar Harbor Salad, which has dried berries, pecans and blue cheese.