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Why do they call it that? Red Lobster started right here | News

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Why do they call it that? Red Lobster started right here
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It's a restaurant chain that's spread across America after revolutionizing the restaurant industry. And you may be stunned to hear it all started in Tampa Bay.

Why do they call it -- wait, what?

You're kidding me! Really? It started in Lakeland?

Yes, in Lakeland, in a building along Lake Parker, Bill Darden opened the doors to the very first Red Lobster.

"Mr. Darden actually was planning on building about 15 restaurants on the I-4 Corridor," said Mike Stroud, one of Red Lobster's top executives.

"And geographically, Lakeland was right smack in the middle. So that's the reason he chose Lakeland."

Stroud has been with Red Lobster for almost as long as the original dinner menu the company brought out for me to see. Let's see -- I think I'll have the three lobster tails for $2.95.

Okay, the prices have certainly changed. But their succulent, sweet lobster tails are still worth every penny.

Darden's great food and service grew one Lakeland location into a chain of more than 700. Let's slice that another way: In one year, guess how many lemon wedges the Red Lobster chain serves?

Try 55 million.

They've expanded within Lakeland, too: They've moved out of the original location and into a newer, snazzy seafood spot on U.S. 98 near Interstate 4.

Mike Stroud is now a senior vice president. He started as a busboy. It's exactly the sort of climb to the top company founder Bill Darden would appreciate.

"There's a story that the first restaurant -- one of the first couple of weeks -- it was really busy, jammed up. And the dishwasher goes down," Stroud said.

"And Mr. Darden is in the back in his three-piece suit, on his back, underneath, fixing the dish machine. So here's the owner of the restaurant and the founder doing that."

Bill Darden didn't just create a restaurant chain when he started Red Lobster. He revolutionized restaurants.

At the time, there were really only two kinds of places to eat out: fancy, white tablecloth fine dining and quick-service, greasy spoon diners.

The idea of something in between -- what we now call casual dining -- didn't exist. It got its big break here in Lakeland at Red Lobster.

"The only place where you could get seafood when Red Lobster started was really around the coast, so you had to be on vacation," Stroud said.

"So the vision was, 'How do I bring seafood to America?' And think about all of the seafood items now America has that Red Lobster brought them: from snow crab legs, to popcorn shrimp, to tilapia."

Okay, enough talk.

I know why you're really here.

It's for the biscuits, isn't it?

"Whenever I tell people I work for Red Lobster, the first thing out of their mouth is 'I love those Cheddar Bay Biscuits,'" Stroud said.

Baked fresh every fifteen minutes, the mouthwatering, cheesy, garlicky bread marks its twentieth anniversary this year.

"I can remember being in the restaurant the night it started. We took them out to our guests, and they just went crazy -- they loved them," Stroud said.

Apparently, the name Red Lobster also caught on just as quickly.

When I asked the company for the story of how the name was chosen, they called the best possible source for the answer: Bill Darden's widow, Mary.

Here's how she says it happened:

"They knew about this restaurant they wanted to open, they knew it was a seafood restaurant, but what they didn't have was a name yet," Stroud said.

"So they're just bouncing around names in this kind of freewheeling brainstorming session, and somebody pops up Red Lobster. And immediately, everyone at the table says, 'Yeah, that's it.'

"Red means it's fresh -- that it's cooked exactly the way it should be cooked. So when you put those two names together, what could be a better name for an iconic seafood restaurant?"

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

Bill Darden passed away in 1994. The company he founded, Darden Restaurants, is still based in Orlando.

It owns seven restaurant chains: Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Eddie V's Prime Seafood, and Seasons 52.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

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