Just in time for the Holidays, just a few days after Christmas gifts have been opened and New Year’s champagne has been swilled we got another sign of our desperate economic times. Darden restaurants, the parent company of seafood chain Red Lobster, announced that they would sell off the seafood family dining chain this year due to low profits. Red Lobster isn’t going out of business yet, but the demise of another accessible integrated chain is another reminder of the struggles of the black working and middle class during this never ending Great Recession.
I have many warm memories of my parents taking the family out to Red Lobster in suburban St. Louis in the 1980’s. This might be a uniquely mid-western thing, but unlike growing up in coastal cities like D.C. or Baltimore, or even a great lakes state like Michigan or Ohio, getting access to seafood was a big deal when the only water nearby is the Mississippi River. Trips to Red Lobster were reserved for big after church events; like good grades, a solo at the church Christmas pageant or graduations.
Red Lobster was a legitimate status symbol for the Midwestern black community when I was a kid. However there is a larger issue with this chain heading down the drain that runs a bit deeper than my fading childhood nostalgia. 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. These are jobs that you can get to on the bus, or hitch a ride to because they are centrally located. These are jobs that are part of larger corporations or franchises, which means that when you have to move you can transfer from one store or restaurant to another and keep your seniority and probably pay level too. This was the value of places like Circuit City, Ms. Field’s cookies and yes, Red Lobster, all franchises that are dead or dying in this economic collapse.
Usually a Red Lobster is located near a shopping mall, which means there are usually bus stops, which means when there’s one family car a 16 kid might be able to catch a few busses or hitch a ride and get to her 2-7 p.m. Saturday shift. Red Lobster, used to be part of the larger Darden’s family restaurant chain which includes places like Olive Garden and Ruby Tuesdays. That means that if your family has to move across town you can usually switch restaurants and keep your job, or even better, if you go off to college it’s much easier to find another Red Lobster to work at and keep making money for books than having to start off fresh. In other words, as Darden’s starts to sell off and get rid of the over 700 Red Lobster restaurants around the country it gets that much harder for kids, or a parent struggling to find that accessible second job, to make ends meet.
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 Habor, or go to any of a million local seafood / soulfood 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.