The Biggest Scandals To Hit Red Lobster

The casual dining chain Red Lobster might be known for its delectable cheddar bay biscuits, and the impressive number of ex-employees-turned-celebrities (like Chris Rock and Nicki Minaj to name a few), but the home of "endless shrimp" also has been at the center of a handful of scandals. The restaurant that serves the lobster-loaded Lobsterfest menu and the easy-on-the-wallet 10 under $10 menu, has, unfortunately, gotten served many times over. For example, celebrity chef Jasper White had a problem with Red Lobster's "Share the Love" slogan, which he said rang too similar to his restaurants' "Food is love" slogan (via Ad Week); in yet another instance, the Milwaukee World Festival, which hosts the "Summerfest" annual music festival, had issues with Red Lobster using the word "Summerfest" to promote its shrimp and lobster dish (via Milwaukee Business Journal). In both cases, the matter had gone to court. 

The restaurant has seen worse, being at the receiving end of lawsuits concerning pay and discrimination, among others. When Red Lobster was acquired in 2020 by Thai Union, a Thailand-based seafood company, and a group of investors, the news had but one blemish — Thai Union had in the past been found to employ contractors who used slave labor, per an AP investigation — though the company cut ties with those contractors since (via Orlando Sentinel). The restaurant's name, besides making it into a Beyoncé song, has been part of some disturbing news. Here's a run-down of Red Lobster's biggest scandals.

Red Lobster's sustainable seafood claims were questioned

Sustainability is hot right now. About 80% of consumers pick or toss their grocery items based on whether it is sustainable or not, as per a study by C.O.nxt and Menu Matters (via Food Business News). They don't mind shelling out a little extra for food tagged "sustainable," as it would mean they are doing their bit to thwart climate change and help food workers. Red Lobster also promotes its food as sustainable — by using phrases such as "Seafood with standards," and "Traceable. Sustainable. Responsible," besides publishing neatly edited videos on "Sourcing our catch" and "Sustaining Maine Lobster." But Dezzi Rae Marshall, a Californian woman, called it an eyewash and launched a class action lawsuit against Red Lobster in June 2021 for deceptive advertising. 

As per the lawsuit, the restaurant got its lobsters from The Gulf of Maine Fishery, which, per the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, violated the Endangered Species Act by being a potential harm to North Atlantic right whales (via Class Action). And the shrimp, the lawsuit claims, come from industrial shrimp farms based out of Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and China that care little about animal and environmental welfare. An investigation by AP also traced the shrimp that come to Red Lobster back to farms in Thailand that employ captive workers, including minors, to peel the shrimp (via The Guardian). Red Lobster did not comment on the claims but said they stand by their slogan, 'Seafoods with Standards'.

Red Lobster ruined mother's day celebrations for some

Those who planned to surprise their mothers with dinner from Red Lobster on Mother's Day 2020 were in for an unpleasant surprise. Some Red Lobster locations in New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois just couldn't meet the demands of their customers, leaving them waiting and seething for hours. A customer posted on Twitter, "@redlobster you made this the worst mother's day for me. I did not get my delivery or my refund. You never answer the phone ... " Yet another posted, "Well I waited 2 hours on Mother's Day and still no food and now I waited almost 24 hours and no response from the company" (via Fox Business).

In one location, customers waited until sundown and had to leave empty-handed after the restaurant shut its doors for the night (via Twitter). All that waiting had one customer at the Red Lobster in East York, Pennsylvania, fly off the handle and barge into the restaurant to demand her money back (via York Daily Record). This was the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, and as per the restaurant's COVID policy, only employees were allowed inside. Things turned ugly when the furious customer slapped an employee at the location, starting a brawl that the rest of the staff members tried their best to douse. In a statement, Red Lobster apologized for the big mess and cited staffing and operation changes around COVID-19 as the cause.

Red Lobster was sued for race and sex descrimination

Red Lobster's name was dragged through some thick mire when allegations of race and sex discrimination were made against the chain in 2021. The first was filed by Kimberly Rowe, a former employee at Red Lobster, who had started off as a server at the chain and was eventually promoted to manager. Though Rowe was promised a high salary to match her new designation, it was lesser than what her male counterparts made, as per the lawsuit (via St. Louis Record). Rowe took it up with the U.S. District Court, and is seeking damages including "loss of wages, benefits, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life," among others.

In yet another case, Miquelle Fountain, a former general manager at a Red Lobster in New York, slapped a $5-million lawsuit against the restaurant for race and sex discrimination, per News 18 (via My Twintiers). Fountain, just like Rowe, had started off as a server and become a general manager in 13 years, during which she served at three locations in Florida, Michigan, and New York. As per the lawsuit, Fountain alleged that one of her former managers had made racist comments about her looks and requested her termination solely because on the color of her skin. Fountain's and Rowe's are just two among the many stories of discrimination that plague the restaurant industry, as per a 2020 study.

Some Red Lobster staff said they had to work even when ill

While we can stay divided on the provenance of Red Lobster's popcorn shrimp, what we can undoubtedly agree on is that none of us want our meal cooked by a sick chef. If you have been a Red Lobster regular, you might want to put down that shrimp for a second: Almost 63% of Red Lobster employees worked even when they were sick in Fall 2021, as per a survey by Harvard's Kennedy School's Shift Project (via Popular Information). Shocking? So is the 2022 investigative report by Popular Information and More Perfect Union, which published quotes by current and former employees who said they didn't have a choice but to continue working even if they didn't feel up to it. 

A former bartender at a Red Lobster in Pennsylvania, James Swartz, said that he was threatened by his managers when he asked for time off after developing COVID-like symptoms, per report. His managers had said he would have to find someone to cover his shift, or else they would have to write him up. Swartz took two weeks off, without pay. While Swartz was able to manage by the skin of his teeth as he had a second job, other employees might not have had that option. Which is why organizations such as More Perfect Union and Some Of Us started petitions demanding that Red Lobster start giving paid sick leave to its employees.

A Red Lobster manager was charged for sexual harrassment

The company's name was smeared by a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by three women employees at the Red Lobster in Salisbury, Maryland, in 2013. As per the lawsuit, the culinary manager at the location had used vulgar words and behaved inappropriately towards the employees. Though they had complained to the general manager, as per the lawsuit, he took no measures to stop it; worse, he himself passed sexually inappropriate remarks at them. The case was then escalated to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the lawsuit against the organization for harboring a sexually hostile environment and violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

It must be noted that it's rare for women employees to come forward to lodge complaints against their harassers — most hesitate to do so. As per a 2015 survey, over 70% of women who experienced sexual harassment at work refrained from reporting it (via Harvard Business Review). Red Lobster condemned the incident saying it "... values having a diverse, safe workplace where all individuals can pursue their professional dreams" (via Business and Human Rights Resource Centre). The statement further went on to say that the chain had investigated the incident and fired the employee who was accused of sexual harassment. The chain also paid a total of $160,000 to the victims, besides providing training to all its employees on how to comply with federal antidiscrimination laws.

Some have called out Red Lobster for its unsafe premises

We don't expect much to go wrong in a place where codzilla, nickname for Red Lobster's fish sandwich, is the closest to anything scary. As it turns out, we are wrong. There have been some events in the past that splashed the restaurant's name in the media as a crime location; but let's start with those that portrayed the restaurant as a place where you could easily injure yourself. In 2006, a woman fell in a Red Lobster and sought damages from the restaurant for her "physical and mental injuries" (via Case Text). In yet another incident, a man tripped over a broom that was on the walkway of a Red Lobster restaurant, suffering some permanent injuries. He too pointed his fingers at the negligence of the restaurant, demanding as much as $50,000 in damages (via BB&G).

Moving on from the slip-and-fall cases — in 2016, a Red Lobster in Arkansas saw a shootout between a 17-year-old and a cop, after the former had attempted robbery at the restaurant (via Arkansas Online). In 2021, an argument between two groups of customers inside a Red Lobster in Wisconsin turned into a brawl, with one of them firing two shots into the restaurant (via WTMJ TV Milwaukee). Thankfully, as per police, no one was injured.

A customer filed a $1-million lawsuit against a Red Lobster waitress for defamation

Though it's Red Lobster's policy to ensure that all its customers' information remains private, Devin Barnes, who had dined at the chain, found a picture of his receipt posted on social media. What stunned him was that the receipt had a racial slur that neither he, nor his wife — who had accompanied him on that fateful day to the restaurant — had written (via Tennessean). While Barnes' and his wife's names were cleared after a handwriting expert confirmed a lack of resemblance between the couple's handwriting and that on the receipt, the accusation — and resulting fallout — was tough to bear. "It's been horrific. I mean, I just have been getting all these threats and everything," said Barnes (via Fox News).

Meanwhile, the waitress who had posted the receipt online to make a point about racism got support and $10 grand from people across the country. Though Jenkins reiterated that it was not her intention to defame Barnes in particular, the damage had been done. Barnes filed a $1-million lawsuit against her for slander and misuse of personal information, and against the restaurant for allowing it to happen. Though there was no way to know who actually wrote the slur, Red Lobster did respond after the original social media post, saying, "This kind of language is completely disgusting and has no place in our restaurant or anywhere else ..." (via Radar Online).

Red Lobster was accused of contributing to obesity pandemic

A shocking twist to all things we believed about how healthy seafood is came when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) listed Red Lobster's combo platter as the unhealthiest restaurant meal in 2015 (via TwinCities Pioneer Press). CSPI's "Xtreme Eating" list handpicks meals from across the U.S. that are adding to the obesity pandemic in the country — meals that have an obscene amount of fat, sodium, and calories. 

It was not a proud moment for Red Lobster when CSPI pointed out that if one ate the chain's Parrot Isle Jumbo Coconut shrimp, Walt's Favorite shrimp and Linguine Alfredo, a side of French fries, a Caesar salad, and one Cheddar Bay Biscuit, one would consume "2,710 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat, and 6,530 milligrams of sodium." If that wasn't clear, the report clarifies: That's "enough calories for more than one day, enough saturated fat for nearly two days, and enough sodium for four days." 

Seafood by itself is healthy, unless it's served in a fashion that's high in fat and sodium, and goes way over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2,000-calorie-per-day recommendation — which is what Red Lobster did, as per the report. Other meals that made it to CSPI's list include The Cheesecake Factory's Louisiana Chicken Pasta, IHOP's Chorizo Fiesta Omelette, and Steak 'n Shake's 7x7 Steakburger 'n fries among others.

Red Lobster was in the news for underpaying its servers

Darden Restaurants, which used to be the parent company of Red Lobster till 2014, was in the news for underpaying its employees. As per the lawsuit filed in the Miami Federal Court, anyone who worked in Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and LongHorn Steakhouse (all owned by Darden) between 2009 and 2012 were eligible to be compensated by the company (via Washington Times). "It seeks potentially tens of millions of dollars in back pay and other compensation, plus interest and attorneys' fees," said lead lawyer David Lichter.

As per the lawsuit, servers were made to work even after clocking out, and those who worked more than 40 hours per week were not paid 1.5 times the regular pay, as they were entitled to. Some tipped employees were made to do non-tipped work — like vacuuming , arranging silverware, etc. — for more than 20% of their work hours. This requires them to be paid the federal minimum wage, which Red Lobster's parent company never did, claimed the lawsuit.

Though Darden refuted claims made in that particular lawsuit, history lays bare more instances where the restaurant giant has violated labor laws. Lawsuits similar to the one filed in Florida were filed in New York and Illinois as well. In 2011, Darden had to pay a civil penalty of around $27,000 in back pay to more than 100 employees in Texas.

Maine fishermen had issues with Red Lobster selling lobster imposters

The meat in Red Lobster's lobster bisque may not be all lobster, revealed a 2016 report. The investigation carried out by Inside Edition broke every lobster lover's heart when it revealed that "more than one-third of restaurants, including Red Lobster, swap out lobster for more inexpensive substitutes in their dishes" (via Business Insider). The team ordered lobster bisque soup from three different Red Lobster locations, scooped out the meat, and sent it for DNA testing to a lab. The results showed that two locations had used a mix of lobster and langostino in their soup, and the third had used 100% langostino. Which brings us to the question: What is langostino?

As per Kristen Millar of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, it is a pelagic crab (via NPR). For D.C.-based chef Fabrizio Aielli, "... it's more of a shrimp ..." (via CBS News). All said and done, it still falls in the family of lobster, says Don Kramer, acting director in the Office of Seafood at Food and Drug Administration. The issue is, langostino is cheap at $4 a pound, and Maine lobster is expensive, coming in at around $24 a pound. With restaurants using cheap langostinos in their lobster dishes, Maine Fishermen lose a lot of money, not to mention that customers are misled.

As per the FDA, if a restaurant uses langostino lobster, which is different from lobster, aka Maine lobster, it should specifically mention that. But Red Lobster, per the Inside Edition's report, hadn't done so for their bisque.

The chain was sued for over-serving alcohol to a customer

Red Lobster's Shrimp Caesars and Malibu Hurricanes are great, but unlike their endless shrimp, there is a limit to how much you can have. A certain customer, an octogenarian, had too much alcohol at the restaurant and ended up falling in the parking lot, breaking her hip and arm and injuring her head (via Eater Houston). Marlene Spencer, who had to spend six days at the hospital to get a full hip replacement, sued the restaurant for serving her too much alcohol, and sought damages for her medical expenses and mental anguish.

The lawsuit mentioned that the restaurant staff was asked by Spencer's daughter to limit the alcohol they served her mom. But despite her request, Spencer had walked out of the restaurant — on the day she fell — with a blood alcohol content of .31, which is about four times more than the legal limit in Texas. The lawsuit added that the restaurant had also overserved alcohol to multiple customers from the nearby senior living center who had dined at the restaurant in the past (via Chron). While Red Lobster did not comment on the lawsuit, they did confirm that they had a strict policy about serving alcohol, and that the staff was trained to follow the policy.