(Photos by Tom Hurst courtesy of Red Lobster)
The newest Red Lobster kitchen, equipped with state-of-the-art appliances, sits in the heart of downtown Orlando, but its dining room has no customers. At least no paying customers.
It’s the seafood chain’s Culinary Development Center, part of Red Lobster’s Restaurant Support Center (don’t call it the headquarters), located in the CNL Tower next to City Hall and across Orange Avenue from the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. The support center occupies three full office floors on higher floors, though not all adjacent, in addition to the ground floor Culinary Development Center.
Besides the kitchen and dining room, which is a replica of any Red Lobster you might find all over North America, the ground floor also has meeting rooms and training facilities. You’ll also find the company’s “Declaration of Independence, signed by managers from many of the Red Lobster restaurants. And, nearby, photos taken in front of Red Lobsters far and wide on the day the company was spun off. (The photos are arranged in what appears to be a free-form collage but what is supposed to be the RL lobster logo; maybe if you squint real hard you might see it.) When I visited last month, a group of managers from restaurants around the country were finishing a multi day training session, they’re collective luggage taking over all floor and table space in one of the meeting rooms while they finished up in one of the well-equipped training rooms.
The luggage wasn’t keeping anyone from holding a meeting. There are plenty of conference rooms and meeting spaces on the upper floors. Those space look pretty much like the offices for any large corporation. There are rows and rows of cubicles, each equipped with a desk that with a flip of a switch can convert to a standing desk.
The three upper floors are virtually identical in setup and design. To differentiate them, each has a unique color — so if you you see red murals on the walls you know you’re on one floor; if everything is yellow, you’re on another. The reception area for each floor features a ceiling of teak that is supposed to resemble the bottom of a boat. Didn’t look like that to me, but then I don’t spend a lot of time under boats.
A lot of the desks are currently empty, an indication that the company plans to do a lot of hiring. According to an earlier press release, the support center will hire 50 to 70 new people over the next couple of years, mostly in information technology (read: jobs that pay more than what your average restaurant server makes). They will join the 300 or so employees who moved from the former home in south Orlando or were hired recently.
RL, of course, was forced to find new space for its, um…oh for crying out loud, it’s the headquarters, when the company was cast off from Darden in 2014. It was great news when the newly independent restaurant company said it would remain in Orlando. It was even greater news that they chose downtown. Actually, the move downtown constitutes a return of sorts. Its first offices were in the Citrus Center (the building that holds the Citrus Club) nearby.
Having a company of this size with a corporate center in downtown is good for the city, economically and culturally. And it has to be better for the employees, too. The Darden Restaurant Support Center is isolated at its location off of John Young Parkway, just north of Grande Lakes Orlando. You pretty much had to bring your own lunch, eat in the employee dining room or get in your car and drive somewhere. Downtown Red Lobster staffers have several lunch options in easy walking distance.
But the ground floor replica of a Red Lobster restaurant is not one of those options. It’s strictly for training purposes. And no, there are no plans to open a restaurant downtown for, say, people attending performances at DPAC. I’m not saying it will never happen, just that there aren’t any current plans.
The kitchen is the domain of Red Lobster’s director of culinary, Dustin Hilinski, whom we met earlier this year, and his staff. The kitchen is a chef’s dream, with plenty of space for cooking, experimenting, meeting and sampling, and has everything you’d expect to find in any working restaurant’s kitchen, including walk-in freezers, refrigerators and dry goods storage spaces. Prior to my tour, Hilinski previewed some of the dishes he’s featuring in the 700 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada for the current promotion, including a pretty tasty crab cake.
So if you’re ever visiting a Red Lobster anywhere in the country and it’s offering a new menu item, you can be assured that it was developed in downtown Orlando.