Red Lobster and Olive Garden are starving

Darden Restaurants kills its chains' all-you-can-eat identities and crushes sales just as Americans abandon casual dining.

By Jason Notte Dec 4, 2012 4:00PM

Customers walk into a Red Lobster restaurant in Hialeah, Fla. on Sept. 6, 2012 (Alan Diaz/AP Photo)Updated Wednesday 3:30 p.m. ET


If you still think about all-you-can-eat shrimp when you think of Red Lobster or never-ending breadsticks or pasta bowls when someone mentions Olive Garden, then you're part of the problem for Darden Restaurants (DRI).


The parent company of those two restaurant chains -- as well as the meaty LongHorn Steakhouse and beer-focused YardHouse -- issued a warning about its second-quarter profits as sales over the last three months tanked. The company blamed Superstorm Sandy and a spate of bad meal promotions for a 0.8% sales slump at LongHorn, a 2.7% dip at Red Lobster and a 3.2% downturn at Olive Garden.


The eating public's indifference to Olive Garden and Red Lobster fare is particularly disconcerting for Darden, which just overhauled menus and restaurants at both chains. Red Lobster, known for bottomless piles of bottom-feeding seafood, increased chicken and beef items from 8% of the menu to nearly a quarter of its offerings. Olive Garden, meanwhile, shifted the focus away from unlimited carbohydrates like breadsticks and pasta to "lighter" fare with fewer than 600 calories. It's laid-back "When You're Here, You're Family" slogan was replaced with the more hectic "Go Olive Garden."


Wednesday, Darden said it won't bump any workers from full-time to part-time to deal with rising costs as Obamacare is implemented. Starting in 2014, large companies must offer health insurance to full-time workers, and as a result Darden was testing the use of more part-time employees. The company was criticized for the move, and said that employee and customer satisfaction declined at restaurants where the tests took place, the Associated Press reports.


While Darden made passing mention of the national health care law and its potential effects on the company's bottom line, it made clear that sales were its biggest issue. Total sales are expected to grow 7.5% to 8.5% overall, down from previous projections of 9% to 10%. Same-store sales for Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn -- originally predicted to grow 1% to 2% this year -- will likely be negative or flat, Darden said.


How is this happening? Didn't the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rise to 73.7 in November, up from 73.1 in October and at its highest level since February 2008? Didn't the University of Michigan/Thompson Reuters consumer sentiment index rise from 82.6 in October to 82.7 in November and reach a five-year high? Aren't consumers looking to spend?


Maybe on houses and small store items, but not on dinners out at a mid-range chain restaurant with tchotchkes on the wall. According to the Census Bureau, spending at food service and drinking establishments is up 7.2% during the first 10 months of the year over the same period in 2011 and up 4.2% in October from October 2012. Restaurant spending decreased 0.4% between September and October and, according to market research firm NPD Group, dropped off 2% at casual-dining establishments within the last quarter. Casual dining on the whole has dropped between 1% and 4% each quarter since spring of 2010.


Meanwhile, the cost of dining out isn't getting cheaper. It's up 2.7% over the last year, according to the Consumer Price Index, which puts it ahead of the 2.2% overall rate of inflation. Darden's prices at both the Olive Garden and LongHorn rose between 2% and 2.2% last quarter, while Red Lobster managed to keep price hikes down to a manageable 1.4%.


If it's any consolation to Darden, its competitors haven't quite figured out the restaurant market this year either and have watched sales either flatten or make modest gains. Share prices at Chili's parent company Brinker Restaurants (EAT) are up 22.6% in the last year and sales are up 2.7%. DineEquity (DIN), the firm that runs Applebee's and IHOP and is viewed as a huge Darden competitor thanks to its "2 for $20" meal deal at Applebee's, saw stock values rise nearly 35% in the same span thanks to 2.3% same-restaurant sales increase at Applebee's, but in spite of a 2.4% decline at IHOP.


Ruby Tuesday (RT), meanwhile, watched shares jump climb more than 7% and sales increase nearly 2% after overhauling its menu and locations. Bloomin Brands (BLMN) -- named after the fried onion appetizer at its flagship Outback Steakhouse chain -- increased sales at Outback, Carraba's Italian, Bonefish Grill and Flemings Steakhouse 3.6% last quarter. Share prices have increased nearly 30% since the stock debuted in August.


The somewhat less family oriented Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) has been an exception, with its focus on football, beer, big TVs, near bottomless supplies of poultry parts increasing sales by an average of 6% last quarter. Its share price is up more than 15.5% over the last year.


Absent chicken and concussions, there doesn't seem to be any magic formula for getting folks in the door. After watching sales inch up a scant 1.1% during the first nine months of the year as foot traffic decreased 1.8% despite Denny's (DENN) adding three restaurants to its total count over that span, the diner-style chain will be pushing a hearty menu tied into "The Hobbit" film trilogy, whose first installment debuts this month.


That kind of goes the other way on Darden's health-and-image-conscious reinvention, but at least places like Denny's and Buffalo Wild Wings know their audience. Olive Garden and Red Lobster are running away from their all-you-can-eat, sit-down identities just as Americans flee faceless casual dining chains.


There may have been something slightly repulsive about orgies of shrimp and spaghetti, but at least they helped separate Red Lobster and The Olive Garden from every other fatty pre-fab chain lining the nation's traffic arteries.


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1094Comments
Dec 4, 2012 7:30PM
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so . the investors don't fly to Cancun every other weekend and the line workers get pink slips.
Dec 4, 2012 7:30PM
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Bottom-line, if you want good food at a fair price, don't eat at chain/ corporation run restaurants.
Dec 4, 2012 7:28PM
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Customers that want something new, go to a "new" restaurant, not an old restaurant with a new menu. Quite a few "chain" restaurants switch up their menus thinking it will bring in a more customers, but it usually just drives away the loyal customers that frequented their establishment in the first place.

 

Another reason; these restaurants cater to the working class.  Not many people in the upper income bracket are regular customers to any of the restaurants in this article. In case you haven't heard, the working class don't have a lot of money to spend on these kinds of expenditures. They spend ti on gasoline now.

Dec 4, 2012 7:26PM
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Well, lessee here.  They call the place "Red Lobster' and I just went to their website and counted only TWO dishes that actually included---you guessed it---LOBSTER.  And they ain't cheap, folks---$25.99 and $27.99 respectively.  They're going to have to do better than that.  And what is with the chicken and beef dishes?  Surf n' turf is fine, but a vast majority of the items served SHOULD include fish.  If I want chicken or beef, I'll go to Applebee's or Outback.

As far as the Olive Garden is concerned, they need to stick with the specials and keep the bottomless salad and breadsticks coming.  We can diet tomorrow; tonight, we want a nice Italian meal.  Everybody knows that Italian food isn't quite diet food, and we don't care.

Too bad these places don't ask We the Customer about what we want, huh?
Dec 4, 2012 7:26PM
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Olive Garden is ok, but Red Lobster is HORRIBLE! The food doesn't taste good unless it's fried and everything seems pre-prepared and frozen in it's own little serving platter. You order, they take it out of the freezer and nuke it, then bring it to your table.

NASTY food, and they wonder why the public won't eat there?

 

 

Dec 4, 2012 7:25PM
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Eating seafood in any seafood restaurant is never going to be a bargain.  What you pay at Red Lobster has increased, while the portions and the quality have both gone down.  Still, when I want fresh fish with a side and a salad, I think Red Lobster first.  Bonefish and others really overdo it.  Personally, I hate it when a salmon filet has 4 names--  ('gorganzolla-crusted stuffed blackened'....).  Just give me good food at a decent price.  I also hate the wait at Red Lobster.  The front of the restaurant looks like the gate at the airport, for christsake! 

 

Red Lobster should just stop it with the endless shrimp.  Those micro-mini bait-shrimp are a waste of time.  They're just trying to fill you up with bread anyways...  How do they even sell lobster when the 1 lb. live maine is going to cost you $50+.  The other 'dead tails' they serve are only overgrown shrimp.

 

At Olive Garden, I rarely get past the soup and salad.  Love that Zuppa toscana. 

Dec 4, 2012 7:24PM
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The Yard House is awesome.  The rest of these places, and the food, not so much.
Dec 4, 2012 7:20PM
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It does not help that the consumers are paying for the help....20 - 25% tips....That has stopped me from going out more...100 dollar meal and they expect 25 more....Get real
Dec 4, 2012 7:20PM
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Couldn't be that people finally realized the food there is awful ?


Dec 4, 2012 7:19PM
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Would be interesting to see people post what they think a "quality" meal for a family of 4 is, and lets say the kids are 12-18 years old. Alcohol not included.

 

I would say $80-$100.

Dec 4, 2012 7:15PM
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Easier explanation.  mediocre to bad food that is way overpriced.
Dec 4, 2012 7:15PM
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Nothing like pre-packaged, frozen, low quality meals they thaw in a microwave.
Dec 4, 2012 7:14PM
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I enjoy eating at both of these places.  With that said, usually only eat at Red Lobster a couple of times a year.  Usually a special occasion because it's a seafood place and we know it's going to be an expensive meal. Same with Olive Garden.  Eat there 2 or 3 times a year.  I would suggest to Darden Restaurants not too get rid of the all you can eat specials or they will see their sales drop even further.

Soup Plantation will also kill an Olive Garden if it is nearby.  There you can get all the salad, soup, bread, pasta and desert for about the same price as the soup, salad and breadstick special at Olive Garden. 

Dec 4, 2012 7:14PM
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Easy explanation.  Both places are disgusting.  Food is terrible.  I've been to each one time, and it's been at least five years since my visits.  Terrible product usually goes hand in hand with terrible revenue.
Dec 4, 2012 7:13PM
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I can't comment on Olive Garden; but Red Lobster can blame declining food quality, poor service, and higher prices for their drop in popularity.
Dec 4, 2012 7:13PM
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Quality and taste of food changed.  Not in a good way.   Except for Longhorn, their food is still excellant..
Dec 4, 2012 7:11PM
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Ruby Tuesday changed their menu and began advertising more.  I tried them twice and was disappointed both times.  Olive Garden and Red Lobster are wonderful.  I am not a big eater so they do not lose money on me.  As an older single female, I am always treated with respect.  Both restaurants have wonderful staffs and the food is prepared well and with "class."  I am never disappointed.  As for price, I feel Ruby Tuesday does not provide the quality of food or amount for the dollar as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. 
Dec 4, 2012 7:10PM
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You are right.  Both Red Lobster and Olive Garden are too expensive for a family outing.
Dec 4, 2012 7:10PM
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I won't eat at Olive Garden because the line of people waiting to eat goes out the door!  If they're losing money there then something is wrong.
Dec 4, 2012 7:10PM
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There's really no mystery here.  People are eating out less because jobs are scarce, money is tight, and you can buy half a week's groceries for the cost of one meal for two at a restaurant.  Many people are tightening their belts across the board and spending less.  Eating out is a luxury that many can't afford any more, like going to the movies.  If you don't want to cook some evening, hit the dollar menu at Wendy's, Burger King, or McDonald's, buy a six pack or bottle of wine at the store, go home and spend time with your family.  It's home, family, and living within your means that's important, not the over-priced substandard food you eat at a restaurant, which is usually served by an incompetent or belligerant server.
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