A sense of place; Red Lobster, one of state’s largest crustacean customers, adopts ‘Bar Harbor’ design

This story was published on Nov. 03, 2007 on Page C1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

The concept of using Maine imagery to attract visitors or customers is nothing new.

Tourism industry officials, Chambers of Commerce, resort owners and others long have disseminated images of the state’s rocky coastline, its forested mountains, its abundant wildlife and its lobster boats to capture the interest of people with some disposable income. L.L. Bean Inc., the Freeport-based retailer, is known worldwide for its catalogs, which are filled with photos of attractive people hiking through rugged and scenic terrain while wearing the company’s famous flannel shirts and boots.

Such marketing usually is done either to draw people to Maine or customers to a company that is based here. But there is one large national restaurant chain which has no customers or even employees in Maine that is giving credit for its new design to one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations.

Red Lobster, which has more than 680 locations in North America, says Bar Harbor is the “inspiration” for the interior design it has chosen for all of its new restaurants, according to a press release recently issued by the company.

The Red Lobster restaurant nearest to Bar Harbor is more than 350 miles away in Wethersfield, Conn., the only New England state where the chain operates. Red Lobster used to have Maine outlets in Bangor and Auburn but closed them in 1998 without offering a public explanation for shutting them down.

Restaurants with the new design scheme have been opened in Inglewood, Calif., near Cleveland in North Olmsted, Ohio, and most recently in Sherman, Texas.

“We do consider Maine to be our spiritual home,” said Wendy Spirduso, director of communications for the Orlando, Fla.-based company. “Bar Harbor is one of [Red Lobster President Kim Lopdrup's] favorite spots in Maine.”

According to Spirduso, the new restaurant design does not employ any elements specific to Bar Harbor – diners will not see any re-creations of the local pier or of Cadillac Mountain – but it does try to capture the warm, casual atmosphere of life on the Maine coast without being kitschy.

Photos of the new Texas restaurant provided by Red Lobster show a bar, lobby and dining room with muted colors, finished surfaces in stone and dark wood, and brass details such as light fixtures and coat hooks. The only distinct, recognizable theme elements in the photos are a white, life-saving ring mounted on the wall of the bar and a model boat hull on display in the lobby.

Big buyer of Maine lobster

Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants Inc., also owns the Olive Garden, Smokey Bones, and Longhorn Steakhouse restaurant chains, among others. Red Lobster had $2.58 billion in sales for 2006, according to the company.

Despite its lack of a formal presence in Maine, Red Lobster does conduct business in the state. It is said to be one of the largest buyers of lobster from Maine, where nearly $300 million worth of the crustaceans were caught in 2006. With about 7,000 licensed lobstermen in a state with fewer than 1.5 million residents, the lobster industry is considered one of the top industries in Maine.

Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, said that outside of processors and some supermarket retailers, Red Lobster may be the Maine lobster industry’s biggest customer.

“That’s probably safe to say, as far as restaurants go,” he said. “They are a very large organization. We’d like to think their choice is always [to buy] Maine lobster, but that might not always be true.”

Somers’ assumption is correct, according to Spirduso. The company buys lobster from other parts of the world, she said, but buys at least 75 percent of its lobster from New England and Atlantic Canada. The bulk of that lobster, she said, comes from Maine.

Spirduso declined to say how much lobster Red Lobster serves at its restaurants, saying it considers such information proprietary. But she did say lobster is the second most popular item on the restaurant’s menu, immediately behind shrimp.

As for crediting Bar Harbor for inspiring Red Lobster’s new design scheme, Spirduso said Lopdrup has been to the town numerous times and was inspired by the setting and quality of food served at the local restaurants. Lopdrup’s affinity for Mount Desert Island, she said, is one of the reasons the company sponsors the MDI Marathon.

Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said the concept of using Bar Harbor or Maine imagery as a marketing tool makes sense.

The town has a nationwide reputation for its scenery and authenticity, he said. The fact that it has fantastic views of the coast and at the same time a working waterfront where local fishermen come and go from their boats helps to draw millions of tourists to Mount Desert Island every year.

“In a lot of ways it’s a quaint seaside town, not to mention the unbridled beauty of Acadia National Park,” Fogg said. “I think it’s interesting for people to go down to the pier and to see lobstermen going out for their daily run.”

Red Lobster does not have restaurants in Maine because of competitive reasons, according to Spirduso. As the new restaurant design is implemented, she said, the company hopes it will be able to expand, which could mean reopening restaurants in the state down the road.

“We consider Maine to be the prime place for seafood,” Spirduso said. “You are blessed with many, many restaurants up there that specialize in lobster.”

Red Lobster does not even have any employees in Maine to serve as buyers for the company’s seafood, she said, but that also could change, depending on the company’s growth. Darden Restaurants has a training center for Olive Garden chefs in Tuscany, Italy, and has considered opening a similar Red Lobster training facility in Maine, she said.

“It is key to us,” Spirduso said of Maine’s role in supplying the chain with seafood. “It’s also key in the inspiration it provides. Maine is important to us, absolutely.”

Giving back to Maine

Gary Allen, the MDI Marathon’s race director, said Red Lobster sponsors the race because it wants to “give back” to Maine. He said that by not having any restaurants in the state, Red Lobster has very little to gain financially by sponsoring the event.

“They contacted us [about becoming a race sponsor],” Allen said. “They feel a lot of the success of their business is due to Maine.”

Allen said that in founding the race six years ago, he set out to create a high-profile, nationally known event, a goal that would be impossible without the backing of a big company such as Red Lobster.

In the past year, the company has used coasters that promote the MDI Marathon at all of its restaurants, Allen said. On average, Red Lobster serves more than 1 million beverages every week, he said.

“You can’t buy that kind of advertising,” Allen said. “There’s no way we could afford them.”

Somers said Red Lobster’s use of Maine imagery does not simply boil down to a corporation co-opting the Maine “brand” for its own profit. Though Red Lobster does not employ anyone in the state, he said, its support of the lobster industry benefits Maine. And Red Lobster’s customers may be inspired to visit Maine if they enjoy their dining experience, he said.

“I think it certainly does help,” Somers said. “It promotes the whole lobster industry.”

In Bar Harbor, the town manager viewed Red Lobster’s public reference to the town much the same way.

Dana Reed said many local companies incorporate the words “Bar Harbor” into their business names but that the town is not likely to consider trademarking its name. An Ohio native, Reed said that before he moved to Maine 21 years ago to take his current job, he had heard about Bar Harbor and had always wanted to visit.

“The more times Bar Harbor gets mentioned out there, the better it is for our tourism business,” Reed said. “Imitation is the best form of flattery.”