Red Lobster revamps menu, adds non-seafood options

FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 file photo, a Red Lobster restaurant is shown in Hialeah, Fla. Darden Restaurants Inc. said Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, that its fiscal first-quarter net income rose 4 percent as it prepared to revamp the menu and marketing for its struggling Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
Alan Diaz

(AP) NEW YORK - Red Lobster isn't just for the seafood lover in you. It's also for that picky eater in every group who just wants a simple chicken dish.

The chain that brought seafood to the masses is hoping to broaden its appeal by revamping its menu on Oct. 15 to include more dishes that appeal to diners who don't want to eat seafood. The chain, which is owned by Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI), also is boosting the number of dishes that it offers for less than $15 to appeal to customers who have cut back on spending.

The chain says a quarter of the items on its menu will be non-seafood dishes, up from 8 percent. And the number of lower-cost entrees will rise to about 60 percent from 40 percent.

A lot hinges on the makeover. After a long streak of healthy growth that began in the late 1980s, the casual dining segment has struggled to grow in the past few years because of oversaturation of those restaurants.

People also are eating out less or trading up to higher-end fast food chains such as Five Guys burgers or down to "fast-casual" eateries like Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. that fall somewhere between traditional sit down restaurants and fast-food chains. And the need for change at Red Lobster in particular is apparent: Traffic at restaurants has fallen in 12 of the past 24 months.

When asked about the risks involved making such a dramatic change to the menu, Clarence Otis, CEO at Darden, which also owns Olive Garden, said: "the biggest risk would be to not change."

The menu

Since opening its doors in 1968, Red Lobster has always had an obligatory chicken or steak dish or two on the menu. If people want a salad, the current menu offers a Caesar. That's it. But diners who aren't in the mood for seafood likely want a little more variety.

So when the chain began the revamp about two years ago, it started by figuring out how to best fill in the gaps.

"We thought, what are the areas we're missing?" said Michael LaDuke, Red Lobster's executive chef.

Last summer, LaDuke and his team of chefs spent two weeks in Charlotte, N.C. to test about 50 dishes in three restaurants. They wanted feedback from diners, but also from the kitchen staff on any problems they encountered executing the dishes. For example, they decided that pineapple salsa should be prepared twice a day, instead of once, to keep it fresher.

Once various adjustments to sauces and cooking times were made, the test was broadened to 40 of its more than 700 restaurants in North America. Diners who ordered the new items were given surveys to fill out whether they liked the dish, what they would change and whether they'd get it again.

One of the dishes that made the cut is a Parmesan-crusted Chicken Alfredo that's served over corkscrew pasta; it's for diners who want a chicken dish that's a little more decadent. The Island Grilled Mahi-Mahi and Shrimp, clocking in at a modest 510 calories, is for those who want to go lighter.

Pork chops are on the menu for the first time. Ditto for the Roasted Vegetable Skewers, the first vegetarian entree that isn't salad or pasta. And there are now three salads, including the Bar Harbor Salad, which has dried berries, pecans and blue cheese.

Speaking about the broader casual dining industry, Raymond James analyst Bryan Elliott says such updating is necessary for survival.

"Food is a bit of a fashion business, there's change that evolves steadily over time," he said. In other words, he said companies are simply putting on a "more contemporary set of clothes."

Consider the transformation from Red Lobster's original menu in 1968, which had separate sections for oysters, clams and scallops. An order of Florida shrimp boiled in beer came with side of hush puppies - "you peel um."