Amid Red Lobster closings, loyal diners ask: Will beloved chain sleep with the fishes?

Amid Red Lobster closings, loyal diners ask: Will beloved chain sleep with the fishes?

ORLANDO, Fla. – For more than 40 years, Peter Bartus ate at Red Lobster at least twice a month.

In Pittsburgh, where he grew up and made his living working at various power plants, it was the only place he could find quality, reasonably priced seafood.

“There were no other places like it,” Bartus, 72, said. “It made it so me and my family didn’t have to go out to Rhode Island or Maine for a good piece of lobster.”

When he retired to Leesburg, Florida, about seven years ago, the closest Red Lobster to his new house was just minutes away. But on Monday, his traditional dining spot had locked its doors. Surprised, he looked inside to see the unthinkable had happened: The lobster tank was empty.

The restaurant was one of over 80 stores across 27 states listed as “temporarily closed” on Red Lobster’s website; some have begun auctioning off their equipment.

The Poseidon of seafood casual dining filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this week, capping a steady decline punctuated by leadership shakeups and store closures, leaving loyal customers like Bartus wondering if they’ll all soon be gone.

Red Lobster says it is doing what it can to restructure and stay alive. "For many of our guests, visiting their local Red Lobster is a family tradition reserved to mark a special occasion, big or small," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY on Tuesday. "We're honored our guests choose us to be at the center of their important life moments and we can't wait to be there with warm Cheddar Bay biscuits for generations to come."

But longtime Red Lobster fans, food experts and observers of Americana say the company's future is not a sure thing. Once a booming seafood colossus with more than 700 restaurants around the globe, the 56-year-old chain founded by restaurant magnate William Bristor Darden is the latest in a list of American dining icons such as Howard Johnson's, Bob's Big Boy and Chi Chi's that ran afoul of changing times, troubling economics and new generations of people who want something different.

Take, for instance, Angela Reynolds, an Aurora, Illinois, native who came to appreciate seafood through Red Lobster and still loves to go with her son.But the menu needs a refresher, said the 47-year-old.“If they wanna stay alive they gotta come up with something different,” she said, noting how dipping lobster in the shrimp scampi sauce is just one of the ways she’s gotten creative.

Gumbo, fish tacos, and Cajun shrimp gnocchi are some dishes she’d like to see on the menu.“They need a little breath of life,” she said, after having the scampi for dinner Tuesday at the Red Lobster in Norridge, Illinois.

Even Americana has a shelf life

Even 20 years ago, the sight would be fairly typical: A family of five in, say, Columbus, Ohio, would pile into Dad's Oldsmobile, make a quick stop at Toys R Us and head over to Red Lobster for a classic seafood meal.

But even some of the most successful American consumer icons eventually fade: The Oldsmobile brand drove into oblivion and Toys R Us checked out its last store customer. Red Lobster potentially faces a similar fate. The Florida-based chain intends to use the bankruptcy proceedings to "drive operational improvements, simplify the business through a reduction in locations, and pursue a sale of substantially all of its assets," the company said.

Red Lobster’s great success was bringing fresh fish and seafood to the American heartland and creating a taste for it that wasn’t there before, said Alex Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration.

“Americans didn't understand seafood, they didn’t have universal access to seafood and Red Lobster was really the first concept that was able to deliver that across the country,” Susskind said. “They introduced seafood in places where people weren’t normally accustomed to eating it.”

Fresh fish, for example, was rarely found in the late '60s outside of major cities or coastal towns.

“Red Lobster basically introduced this product to people who wouldn't have seen it otherwise,” he said, noting they did something similar with keeping lobster fresh in a tank. “They’re primarily responsible for opening up consumers' eyes to that product type . . . (Founder) Bill Darden was a behemoth.”

The legacy of creating the demand for fish and seafood around the country remains. But by losing Red Lobster locations, the country loses what Susskind called a “piece of history."

Their downfall, Susskind said, came from failing to cultivate a younger customer base.

“They developed this strong demand in the late ’60s, ’70s, and the baby boomers, possibly Gen X were big fans of this concept,” Susskind said. But “they did not replace those baby boomers with millennials, with Gen Z, and as a result they have all these restaurants and not enough demand.”

A plethora of fast-casual restaurants, including Chipotle, Five Guys, Panera Bread and sweetgreen, instead became popular with younger generations, who are less interested in an hour-long dining experience and more likely to order takeout, he said.

A sense of shock around the lobster tank

Stacey Abramowski, 65, was shocked when her friend told her Monday that Red Lobster had filed for bankruptcy.

“I yelled, ‘They are not!’" she said. "But today I looked it up and wow … it’s true.”

Growing up on Long Island, Abramowski said Red Lobster was omnipresent whether you were driving around or watching TV.

“Those commercials … announcing the deals and the all-you-can-eat shrimp, it was just everywhere,” she said. “If the food wasn’t so good it would have been annoying.”

Sherri Finnegan, 70, was part of the team at the first Red Lobster to open in Denver. The land-locked city was burning with enthusiasm when the chain set up shop – fresh fish was not widely accessible at the time.

“It was a big deal to have shrimp and lobster,” she said.

Over the next 40 years, she came to know the brand not only as an employee but as a customer, celebrating countless milestones inside the familiar restaurant, from birthdays in Colorado to anniversaries in Orlando.

On Tuesday, Finnegan and her friends changed their plans so they could eat at Red Lobster, just in case they were going to close soon.

“I told them we have to get our last fix of cheesy biscuits before it’s all gone,” she said.

Bartus, the Florida retiree who, much to his dismay, found his local Red Lobster closed, decided on Wednesday to drive 40 minutes south to Clermont, Florida, to get the “Lobster Lover’s Dream”: Caribbean and Maine lobster tails over lobster-and-shrimp linguine.

While the food and the price made up for the added distance, Bartus hopes bankruptcy doesn’t lead to the death knell for Red Lobster.

“That’ll be the end of a part of my life,” he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Red Lobster closing permanently? Loyal diners fret over changes