For Blacks at Red Lobster, a Nexus of Novelty, Nostalgia

Darden Restaurants is banking on a brand refresh nearly a decade in the making to rebuild Red Lobster, but will loyal black dollars be essential to the turn around?

In the summer of 2011, Red Lobster encouraged customers to ‘Sea Food Differently,’ highlighting its Maine Stays, a variety of menu items below $15, the anchor of the most comprehensive core menu transformation in the brand’s history. Today, nearly 25 percent of its menu is comprised of non-seafood items and 60 percent is below $15. Red Lobster has also modernized many of its dining rooms, adopting a New England-style ‘dockside’ aesthetic.

“Part of what some of our customers said,” says Chip Wade, Red Lobster’s executive vice president of operations, “was that, ‘Hey, I love seafood, but my husband is allergic to shellfish, so he immediately discounts Red Lobster.’ So the core menu is designed to provide our core guests and hopefully new guests with the opportunity to come into Red Lobster and see new menu offerings at more approachable price points.”

‘Our core strengths are not going away’

Wade knows his seafood. Before his current role as Red Lobster’s executive vice president of operations, he studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in seafood-crazed New England. In Boston, Wade had a two-year stint as COO of Legal Sea Foods. He has worked in management and human relations, overseen renovations and special projects.

So when Wade, who turned 50 on Valentine’s Day, says he’s confident the brand’s transformation won’t alienate its most loyal customers, he speaks as an executive who understands what brand loyalty means to all levels of the operation.

Red Lobster EVP of Operations Chip Wade.

“We value the fact that they not only love and frequent our brand, but we value their insights. What we’re hearing from them is the need for affordability and the need to have a little more variety and choice. We know we have strengths in seafood and executing and operating on a number of different species of fresh fish as well as fantastic shellfish. Those menu items and our core strengths and expertise is not going away.”

Over the years, an undeniable affinity

Red Lobster declined to share specifics on the makeup of its guest demographics, saying only that information on the brand is proprietary. But market research and an analysis of black consumer behavior at restaurants suggests Red Lobster is among African American’s favorite destinations in the casual full-service dining segment, a fact not lost on Red Lobster or its parent company.

NPD Group, which has been tracking consumer behavior at restaurants since 1976, polls hundreds of consumers each day. According to the group’s findings, African Americans made 7.1 billion visits to restaurants during the reporting period ending in September 2012. Spending a total of $40 billion, the average African American made 174 visits to restaurants spending about $6 per visit.

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