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Financial troubles force dozens of Red Lobster restaurants to close down

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Cheddar Bay Biscuits, the Crispy Dragon Shrimp, the Chesapeake Fries - and quick. Dozens of Red Lobster locations are closing down, following an all-you-can-eat shrimp promotion that may have been ruinous. Amy McCarthy is a fan of Red Lobster. She's written about the midmarket chain for the Dallas Observer, more recently, the Eater website. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMY MCCARTHY: Yeah, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Was it the all-you-can-eat shrimp special that caused problems for Red Lobster?

MCCARTHY: I definitely think it's more complicated than that. I first wrote about my affinity for Red Lobster in 2014 when the chain was being sold by Darden Restaurants, which was its original parent company. And at the time, it was transitioned into multiple different owners. Private equity was a big player, I think, in Red Lobster's downfall. Now it's owned by a seafood company. There's been a lot going on with Red Lobster. So I think it's a little bit more complicated than just the endless shrimp.

SIMON: Have other restaurants that have been aiming at the same part of the market also suffered losses?

MCCARTHY: I think there are chains that have been successful. Chili's is doing really well right now. And I think there are chains that have been less successful, as you're seeing with Red Lobster. I think in our current economic conditions, the chain restaurants will actually become a little bit more popular overall because people's dining dollars are more limited than ever, and when that's the case, consistency is really important to people.

SIMON: What's been the role of Red Lobster in a lot of communities?

MCCARTHY: Sure. Red Lobster is, you know, I think, a seafood restaurant for people who don't have really great local seafood restaurants to go to, maybe in their neighborhood. Maybe there's a couple in your city, but I think that generally, you know, I think Red Lobster was really dominant in the suburbs where people could go, take their kids, have an affordable meal. And it really still kind of felt like a splurge because it was seafood, you know, was crab legs and lobster and shrimp.

SIMON: Yeah. What did Red Lobster do that became very successful, do you think in this segment of the market?

MCCARTHY: I think it made seafood restaurants very accessible. They had dishes that were very crowd-pleasing. You know, if you think about shrimp, scampi or coconut shrimp. I mean, that's shrimp and butter and delicious fried shrimp. You know, that's something that even people who don't really have an affinity or a taste for seafood can kind of get behind. I also think that Red Lobster did a good job for a long time of making it seem a little fancier than your average sort of chain restaurant. You know, there was the tank of live lobsters when you walked inside. There were more, you know, high-end items like filet mignon and lobster. And for folks who don't go to fancy restaurants all the time, you know, I think it really filled that gap.

SIMON: I've been to Red Lobster. I've never had a Cheddar Bay Biscuit. What am I missing?

MCCARTHY: You know, I think the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are really the enduring thing from Red Lobster. I think that if the restaurants don't stick around, the biscuits will. You can buy a mix at the grocery store and kind of make your own at home. There's also tons of copycat recipes on the internet. But, you know, it's just delicious in all the ways that a biscuit is great. It's buttery and cheesy and a little garlicky. And they bring them to you for free, which is pretty cool.

SIMON: Amy McCarthy, a reporter for the Eater website. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.