In Defense of Red Lobster and the People Who Eat There

Categories: Schaefer

scampi.jpg
Courtesy of Red Lobster
Scamper over to Red Lobster for the scampi and you just might run into Eric Schaefer.
Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.

Olive Garden is the poster child for corporate restaurant mediocrity. Dumbed-down food posing as "authentic," catering to the masses with sodium and fat-laden gruel.

Its corporate sister, Red Lobster, is slightly less offensive to many but hardly considered destination dining among the culinary cognoscenti. These corporate behemoths thrive, earning shareholders a tidy profit while dotting the American landscape with a sad but certain comforting sameness.

But this is not a story about why Olive Garden should be stripped from our malls, or why your shame from being seen at Red Lobster by your food nerd friends is somehow justified. I'm an egalitarian lover of food and, in my mind, Olive Garden and Red Lobster are gateway drugs -- an often necessary first step toward a more enlightened appreciation of food.

See also: Texaz Grill's Chicken Fried Steak Is a Classic Phoenix Guilty Pleasure

And that's not to say that's there is nothing enlightened about Olive Garden's Fettucine Alfredo, an artery-clogging hot mess of cream, gluten, and cheese. Nor is there anything wrong with Red Lobster's addictive Cheddar Bay Biscuits and Popcorn Shrimp.

We can argue for an eternity about what truly constitutes "good" or "authentic," but I'd bet that if you weren't faced with the judgment of your food snob friends that you, too, would find some satisfaction in them.

It's also important to note that in much of this country, Red Lobster and Olive Garden own the category of "destination dining." Guess what, food snob? Bumblefuck, Missouri, doesn't have a locavore movement, and "farm-to-table" only exists if you're the actual farmer. While I view the movement toward independent restaurants that focus on sustainability as a positive trend, we're lying to ourselves if we think that there isn't always going to be a place in the world for the Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens. Even a $15 plate of fried shrimp at Red Lobster is a special night out for a lot of people.

To me, as a child growing up in a comfortably middle-class family in St. Louis, Red Lobster was a special treat. Who remembers their Hush Puppies -- crispy on the outside and loaded with corny creaminess on the inside? All-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp wasn't just a meal, it was a delightful challenge for this growing boy.

And, in many ways, learning to eat seafood at a young age -- even if it was at Red Lobster -- prepared my palate to appreciate seafood as I grew older, my tastes becoming more varied and sophisticated. Red Lobster gave me a baseline appreciation so that when I moved to San Francisco as a young adult, I could go full-bore seafood addict. There's no shame in that.

I think we've lost sight of the fact that food trends in big cities haven't yet made a big impact outside of those big cities. We're quick to judge people who eat at Olive Garden. "They're hicks," we say. "They don't know what real Italian food is." And I fully agree that there is much "better" Italian food to be had than what you find at Olive Garden. But I'd also argue that I'd rather someone try Italian food at Olive Garden than never at all. I've had the Maine lobster at Red Lobster and, other than the ambiance, I couldn't find a flaw.

What prompted me to write this rant is a press release I received earlier this week, stating that Olive Garden will soon be offering "Never Ending Pasta Bowl XVIII" and Red Lobster will have its 12th annual "Endless Shrimp" event. My initial reaction was to scoff, flaunt my food snob feathers and condemn Olive Garden and Red Lobster as signs of the impending apocalypse. But if these restaurants suddenly disappeared, thousands of people would be jobless, storefronts would be vacant, and a lot of people outside the hotbeds of the food revolution might not ever know the sweet briny pleasure of a fresh lobster.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all.

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17 comments
acg070776
acg070776

You are 100% right!  As a child, Red Lobster was a treat for me!  Maybe once a year I'd get to sit down in front of a big plate of crab legs and tear into them!  RL introduced me to seafood, and I appreciate them for that.  And yes, I too still love those cheddar bay biscuits -- even though my waistline may not.

davelog
davelog

Red Lobster became dead to me when they stopped making hush puppies.

You hear me, Red Lobster? DEAD TO ME.

Eric Schaefer
Eric Schaefer

As a matter of fact, I like the fajitas at Chili's. Conversely, I've spent over $700 per person on a meal at Guy Savoy and enjoyed that too. "Good" has many facets and, for me, defies price point and labels. Applebee's, for the record, sucks. ;-). Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

ezhik
ezhik

I love this pro-mediocre-chain offensive. And it is the best type of defense for Olive-Garden'esque corporate and supporters. All of a sudden, the tables are turned. Now it is not the small cheap local authentic eateries and their clientele, low wage intelligentsia and the students and blue-color workers, who are the victims of the big chains' dominance. No. It is Olive Garden and its middle class patrons who are abused and threatened by extinction by the 'foodie snobs.' Genius! And the compassionate person in me is actually sorry for that middle class kid raised on Red Lobster..eh...lobster. Common sense still tells me that there are millions of people who love sea food without ever paying $15 for a plate at RL, but I do feel compassion for somebody who feels the need to defend his childhood 'event food.'


bmcphx
bmcphx

Good is easy to define. If you like it, it's good.

Hr Hamada
Hr Hamada

no they are not. they are the DECLINE of real food! They are the reality TV version of cinema and the Harlequin romance version of literature. People eat there thinking they've had a good meal when they could eat something halfway decent for the same or less money if they just chosen wisely (or cooked themselves) Who are you going to defend next chili's, applebee's and outback?

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

BTW, it *IS* possible to believe that restaurants like OG are a bad thing without holding their customers in disdain.  Let's not automatically conflate the two, please.

phxjustice
phxjustice

Thank you Eric.  As someone who grew up in small town Iowa (population 700 at its peak), where we were lucky enough to have a bar that served food, I can appreciate someone enjoying their night out at Olive Garden or Red Lobster.  For me, just going to McDonald's in Waterloo/Cedar Falls was a super rare treat as our family didn't have a lot of money.  It wasn't until I was in college that I had my first dinner at Red Lobster and I had saved for 3 months to do that.


So yes, while the food snobs may look down their noses at the "unsophisticated" masses, I revel in their disdain.  Now, pass me some more of that addictive biscuits!

Donna Viersen Donahue
Donna Viersen Donahue

And there are some of us who do know the finer side of dining and can cook it too, and STILL like those places =)

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

"But if these restaurants suddenly disappeared, thousands of people would be jobless, storefronts would be vacant..."

An assumption unsupported by evidence.

It's also possible that those same storefronts would be filled with similar restaurants that make better food, and pay better wages to those same employees.

EricEatsOut
EricEatsOut

@SkilletDoux Dom - "It's also possible that those same storefronts would be filled with similar restaurants that make better food and pay better wages to those same employees"  

It's also possible that unicorns will fly out of my ass.

My assumption *wholly* supported by evidence.  There are 700 Red Lobsters and at least as many Olive Gardens.  Let's conservatively assume that each store is 5,000 square feet....a conservative estimate, by the way.  So, let's say that there are 1,400 Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters total at 5,000 sf each for a total of 7,000,000 square feet.  If 7,000,000 sf of restaurant space suddenly became available, it would literally take years - at least 5 - for that square footage to be absorbed by new restaurants even if the net absorption rate of retail space were to improve.  Even WITH all the Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens, there is STILL a glut of empty retail space that hasn't been filled.  The independents aren't doing it.  A decent analogy: just look at when Circuit City closed...many of those locations STILL haven't been filled.  And when they go dark, they often take down the entire shopping center with it because they serve as anchor tenants.  So, the property owner loses revenue, defaults on his loan, other tenants fail because of the decrease in traffic, and the property is foreclosed upon and we all lose.  To argue, even halfheartedly, that such a hole could be filled with independents in a reasonably time-frame is completely baseless.  

I'm not saying that you have to agree that Olive Garden/Red Lobster is good or bad, but such a gigantic economic (and physical) void isn't just going to be filled by independents.  The evidence (not unsupported assumption) clearly points to the contrary.  Shopping Center landlords are notoriously averse to "non credit" (aka high risk) tenants.  

Furthermore, many employees LIKE to work at Red Lobster because it's almost ALWAYS busy!  I'm not here to change your opinion of these places or to debate the merits of Wal-Mart, Home Depot or a host of other chains that have arguably had an adverse effect on mom & pop businesses, but to shoot down my assertion with a casual remark like "an assumption unsupported by evidence" is entirely baseless and irresponsible. Don't get me wrong - there is LOTS that is "bad" about these places, but it's not always the food. (and sometimes it IS the food, too!)

Chains, whether mediocre or not, serve a role in the food ecosystem.  They can be good, but not necessarily so.  They can be bad, but not necessarily so.  I admire your desire to change the dynamics of the food scene and have huge respect for your knowledge and passion.  But I also take the side of the realist, and try to work within those confines...for better or worse!

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@eric598

You mean you meant that *literally*, as in, if all OGs and RLs were to magically blink out of existence? Yes, then you're correct.  But I hope you'll forgive me for misunderstanding your suggestion because I'm not sure how that suggestion is meaningful.

What I was trying to address is, in effect, the Walmart question. Do they create jobs, or do they just drive out independents and drive down wages?  I understand now that your meaning was literal, but the implication still seems to be that these chains are an economic boon.  If that is supported by evidence, there's none offered here.  Which is fine, but I think it's an important point to make.  I think your implication, intentional or not, is that the choice is between megachains and desolate storefronts with out of work employees.  But the choice can be between megachains and higher quality independents that treat their workers better.  And in my opinion, it *starts* with devoting column inches towards championing those better choices rather than giving yet more exposure to the Goliaths of the restaurant industry.

 

JKGrence
JKGrence

@Eric598 Be careful what you wish for, I spied a box of Cheddar Bay Biscuit mix at the grocery store.

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@Eric598 Also, with apologies for the PS, I completely agree that chains aren't inherently good or bad.  I think there's a strong tendency for otherwise good places to go downhill as they expand, but that's not a truism -- there are chains that make great food. I can't speak to RL, having never been there, but to be clear, I don't object to OG because it's a chain or because it's inauthentic.  I object to OG because, in my opinion, it's just awful food.  Which is something you can just ignore when it's some random joint, but it's downright depressing when it's America's most dominant purveyor of Italian food.

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@Eric598 Perhaps so (can't say).  But as you astutely point out, whether or not Red Lobster and Taco Bell continue to exist is unlikely to hinge on whether you and JK are writing about them.  The same cannot be said for scads of mom and pop joints around town that I suspect we'd all agree are a far more valuable part of the local scene.


(FWIW, I don't mean this as a "how dare you write about that crap!" diatribe.  That we all have our pet junk food pleasures is something about which we agree.  But frequency is meaningful, and let's just say that this is one small part of a local media trend that I find... dismaying.)

EricEatsOut
EricEatsOut

@SkilletDoux I don't know, man, those Cheddar Bay biscuits are pretty darn good.  They deserve even more column inches than JK Grence and I have devoted to them.

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