Atlantans recall fond memories of Red Lobster amid closures

Longtime chain restaurant brings out seafood lovers
A view of Red Lobster on Camp Creek Parkway in Atlanta shown on Monday, May 20, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

A view of Red Lobster on Camp Creek Parkway in Atlanta shown on Monday, May 20, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Florrie Kelley and her three friends arrived at the Red Lobster near Truist Park on Monday at noon. The women had made the trip to the Cumberland Mall area from Buckhead in hopes of supporting the Florida-based seafood chain.

As soon as Kelley heard about the chain’s closures in Georgia and around the country, she told her friends they had to “go support Red Lobster.”

Red Lobster announced Sunday that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This development came just days after nearly 50 locations shuttered around the country, three restaurants in Georgia, including its Roswell unit on Holcomb Bridge Road. The restaurant chain said in a news release it will use the bankruptcy proceedings to improve its operations, close locations and pursue a sale of its assets.

“This restructuring is the best path forward for Red Lobster,” CEO Jonathan Tibus said in a prepared statement. “It allows us to address several financial and operational challenges and emerge stronger and refocused on our growth. The support we’ve received from our lenders and vendors will help ensure that we can complete the sale process quickly and efficiently while remaining focused on our employees and guests.”

A Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows a business to continue operating while consolidating debt. The company said it will enter into what’s known as a “stalking horse” purchase agreement, by which it will sell itself to an entity formed and owned by its lenders. Red Lobster said it has also obtained operating financing from its lenders and that remaining locations will stay open.

Kelley and her friends were “shocked” to hear the news. They have been frequenting Red Lobster for years, during which they like to sit at one of the large tables and chow down on their favorite menu items — the trademark Cheddar Bay Biscuits, crab and popcorn shrimp.

Bill Darden founded Red Lobster in 1968 in Lakeland, Florida, in the hopes of providing families with affordable and accessible seafood. General Mills purchased the company in 1970 and grew the restaurant into a nationwide chain. In its more than 50 years in business, it established more than 700 locations globally, and acquired a following of customers who think fondly of the famous cheddar biscuits and the tank of live lobsters front and center at each location.

General Mills later spun out what became known as Darden Restaurants into its own publicly traded company, which included the Red Lobster chain.

Darden sold Red Lobster in 2014 to a private equity firm for $2.1 billion. In 2020, another private equity firm, Thai Union, became the chain’s largest shareholder. But the chain had fallen on hard times.

About 20 miles south of the Red Lobster near Truist Park, the location on Camp Creek Parkway, a few miles west of the Atlanta airport, was bustling at lunchtime Monday. Francette Hammond pulled a bundle of gold and black balloons from her car as she headed into the restaurant to celebrate her grandson’s graduation. The Union City resident has been coming to Red Lobster for more than 50 years.

“I just love the fish, I love those biscuits and I love the service,” she said. In 1975, she even celebrated her own high school graduation at the restaurant.

While the Cobb Parkway location wasn’t as busy, Sandra and Robert Shumpert of Newnan were one pair of diners who pulled into the Red Lobster parking lot to take advantage of the convenient location. It’s become a tradition for the Shumperts to dine at Red Lobster before attending a nearby Braves game, which offers a tasty way to earn free parking.

Sandra Shumpert was taken aback by the news of Red Lobster’s bankruptcy, but her husband wasn’t surprised. He has noticed other restaurant chains in Newnan closing their doors in recent years.

“It’s not a good thing,” Robert Shumpert said. “It’s the way the economy is.”

Other metro Atlantans who learned of the Red Lobster closings chimed in online with their own memories. Sherry Burnett Geist said on Facebook that her family went to Red Lobster every February after they got their tax return.

“We dressed up like we were really going somewhere special,” she wrote. “Us kids (six of us) all got Shirley Temples, and my mom and dad got the fancy drink in the collector lighthouse glass.”

Michael Erickson said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the restaurant was “the pinnacle of fancy dining” for him as a child. Erickson’s favorite item was the fried shrimp, “simple, flavorful and crunchy!”

“They had the best deep, dark orange French dressing, too,” Erickson wrote. “When my dad orders a salad anywhere, he still says ‘I hope the French is as good as Red Lobster’s.’”

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