The forgotten racist history of red lobster

New York

Communities across the country are losing out on Cheddar Bay biscuits and all-you-can-eat seafood deals Red troubled lobster About 100 American restaurants are closing, with up to 135 additional closures Looming.

But Red Lobster’s decline represents a particular loss for many Black diners, who formed a loyal base for the brand and still account for a larger share of customers than other major restaurant chains, according to historians, customers and former Red Lobster executives.

“Red Lobster is cultivating black customers. It hasn’t turned away from that customer base like some brands have,” Clarence Otis Jr., former CEO of Darden Restaurants from 2004 to 2014, when the company still owned the chain, told CNN. .

After Otis became CEO, Sacramento Observer columnist Mardio Cannon wrote that it was “appropriate” that Red Lobster had a black CEO because “if there is any restaurant in America that most African Americans love, it is Red Lobster.” .

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Clarence Otis Jr., former CEO of Darden Restaurants.

In a 2015 investor presentation, Red Lobster said 16% of customers are black, two percentage points higher than the black share of the U.S. population. Red Lobster did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on current customer demographics.

The chain has hired black workers and served black guests since its beginnings in the South in the late 1960s, and black celebrities like Chris Rock and Nicki Minaj worked there before they became famous. (Minaj later Jokingly (about being fired from the “three or four” Red Lobsters where she worked on “Lobsterita” drinks and Cheddar Pie biscuits with Jimmy Fallon.) Beyoncé sang about taking a Red Lobster romantic partner in her 2016 song “formation,” which examines police brutality, Hurricane Katrina, and black culture in America.

Red Lobster attracted working-class and affluent black patrons during the 1970s and 1980s at a time when many restaurants were not welcoming black customers, said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Franchise.” : The Golden Arches in Black America, which explores the relationship between McDonald’s and black consumers.

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Early Red Lobster locations near malls also helped it grow with black customers, she said.

“The placement of Red Lobster outlets near malls coincided with the opening of more retail options for African Americans after the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she said in an email. “This style of restaurant was attractive to people looking for a great dining-like experience without dealing with the uncertainty of how they would be treated at local businesses.”

Founded by Bill Darden, Red Lobster was racially integrated when it opened in 1968 in Lakeland, Florida.

Employing and serving blacks was not a revolutionary move on Darden’s part, and he was certainly not the first to seize this opportunity. But it was another sign of the racial progress of blacks in Lakeland and the changing South. In Lakeland during the early 1960s, local civil rights activists Sit-in Businesses and movie theaters barred entry to black customers, forcing them to assimilate.

Although Red Lobster’s opening came four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act mandating the desegregation of public places, many schools and businesses remain segregated. Some are closed rather than integrated.

“He was always very open and accepting of us,” Red Lobster said. Beverly Boatwright, who was active in the Lakeland sit-in movement while attending the all-black high school, with her mother, a leader in the local branch of the NAACP. “We didn’t have any problems at Red Lobster. There were other places we had struggles” in the city.

But Red Lobster wasn’t immediately a popular place with black customers in Lakeland, and Darden’s legends were Civil rights pioneer Which has grown in recent years exaggerated.

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Red Lobster wasn’t “a place we frequented very often” in its early days, said Harold Dwight, who graduated two years later from Boatwright in 1968. Most black residents did not have the means to go out to eat, Dwight said. When they did, they went to establishments run by black owners and Morrison’s Cafeteria, the largest cafeteria chain in the South, which had been integrated for several years and had more black employees.

From the Okefenokee Regional Library System

Green Frog Restaurant in Waycross, Georgia, 1961.

In corporate lore, Darden’s first restaurant, Green Frog, which opened in 1938 in Waycross, Georgia, was desegregated. Darden has been praised in various articles as a. “social crusader” “from [stood] reach to “Jim Crow” In “challenge” apartheid laws. On Darden Restaurants Big company On its website, the company mentions the Green Frog and says its founder “welcomed all guests at his tables.”

But Green Frog didn’t welcome black patrons at first, according to black people who grew up in Waycross and remember Green Frog, which closed in the 1980s.

John Fluker, the former mayor of Waycross, said blacks worked in the kitchen, but the Green Frog did not welcome black customers.

Waycross resident Horace Thomas said the green frog reflected racial norms of the time in south Georgia.

“They didn’t open the doors for black people,” he said. “Everyone was like that.”

Although black customers did not immediately frequent Red Lobster, the chain gradually built its strength with black customers as it expanded in the South and across the country.

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Red Lobster gained a reputation for being friendly and open to black customers, in part because it had black employees when it opened a new restaurant and later developed marketing strategies to attract black diners, historians and former executives say.

Walter King, who was hired in 1971 to run Red Lobster, was one of the company’s first black employees and stayed with the chain for 36 years. Red Lobster later named one of its signature dishes after King: “Walt’s Favorite Shrimp.” The king died last year.

“They were loyal to us and we were loyal to them,” Beverly Boatwright said. “We went there because the food was delicious. It was the only place you could get good seafood. It was a luxury.”

Michael Nagel/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Red Lobster has gained a reputation for welcoming black customers.

Red Lobster’s cuisine was also a major part of its popularity among black diners.

Fried fish was served outdoors with catfish, lobster, and other seafood as a meal Folk traditions in black communitiessaid Robin Autry, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University who studies race and recently wrote about how Red Lobster fell “It hits differently” For black communities.

Autry said Red Lobster brought “the outdoor fried fish experience” indoors. For many blacks, the transition from frying fish outdoors to sitting down with menus and serving them became a sign of status.

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