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Into the Heart of Darkness of Red Lobster’s Endless Crab

The infamous 2003 marketing disaster spawned a cult of all-you-can-eat crustacean — which still tortures waiters today

Taylor, a former Red Lobster employee in Arizona, says there are basically only three topics of conversation among the seafood chain’s workforce: 1) horrible customers; 2) plans to quit; and 3) the hellscape that is Red Lobster during a promotion. 

Red Lobster, which was founded in 1968, is known for its daily deals and special holiday menus, such as Steak and Lobster Wednesday, a classic surf and turf for just $19.99; Fish Fry Friday, a traditional order of fish and chips for just $11.99; and Lobsterfest, a Valentine’s Day ritual for seafood-loving lovers who wish to partake in lobster-themed dishes that start at $19.99. There is, however, one that tops them all and drives employees particularly crazy: Endless Shrimp. “The meals are all under $20, and we’re only allowed to replace one tiny shrimp dish at a time, meaning a single table could result in tens of trips to and from the kitchen, all for a zero increase in payout,” Taylor says.

He credits Endless Shrimp as the main reason he finally quit working at Red Lobster. His final straw? A Gen-Z couple that live-streamed their carnage. “They arrived at noon and filmed themselves consuming plate after plate of shrimp to try and ‘set a record,’” Taylor tells me. They ended up having more than 22 plates, though Taylor took great pleasure in making them wait forever between their final seven.

Ironically, all of these promotions were born from one of Red Lobster’s biggest failures. In 2003, to help the chain’s declining profits, company president Edna Morris decided to create the mother of all promotional gimmicks, a surefire way to entice customers who perhaps found the menu a little too pricey. (Listen, I get it, I spent the first half of my life thinking Red Lobster was a fancy restaurant.) Morris had worked at the Quincy’s Family Steakhouse chain previously, which had been very successful with an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. As such, she was certain that no seafood lover could resist the allure of Endless Crab, freshly steamed snow crab and sides of melted butter that would never stop for just $22.99. 

Although some higher-ups at the company balked at the idea, others were convinced Endless Crab, the company’s first all-you-can-eat promotion, would prove lucrative. After all, how much crab could one person down?

They, however, made one fatal mistake: They underestimated just how much Americans can eat. They tried to recover by raising the price $5, but after seven weeks, they shelved the promotion altogether. It quickly became one of the all-time biggest marketing blunders in corporate history and nearly bankrupted the company. When investors pointed out the lapse in judgment, corporate bigwigs blamed gluttonous consumers. On a conference call with investors, one was quoted as saying, “It wasn’t the second helping [of crab], it was the third that hurt.” Another added: “And the fourth.”

Compounding these losses was that snow-crab prices were sky-high in 2003, something Red Lobster execs failed to consider. Making matters worse, because there truly was no limit, people would remain in the restaurant for hours, leading to a mass exodus of the non-Endless Crab customers who didn’t feel like dealing with the shitshow. 

Food waste was another issue. While most all-you-can-eat services make you clean your plate before you get more, there was no accounting for uneaten crab in its shell. And when people aren’t paying for each leg, they tend to get very lazy about digging out every last bite. They just ate whatever was easiest to remove and discarded everything else — over and over again.

In the end, the debacle was responsible for a $3 million loss in a single financial quarter, and Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, lost $405.9 million of stock value due to a massive sell-off. Meanwhile, Morris, the woman who came up with the idea, eventually resigned — a shameful incident in Girl Boss history. (By contrast, a single mention of Red Lobster in Beyonce’s “Formation” increased the chain restaurant’s profit by 33 percent.) 

Nonetheless, the chain didn’t necessarily get out of the all-you-can-eat business. Endless Shrimp, Taylor’s personal hell, started just a year later, in 2004. It turns out shrimp is much cheaper than crab and much more filling. There are still plenty of customers, though, looking to game the system, swallowing shrimp like they’re marbles in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. In fact, there are entire Reddit threads dedicated to debating how many shrimp you’d have to eat to cause Red Lobster to lose money. And in 2018, two writers detailed their Endless Shrimp escapades for Business Insider, in which they consumed more than 350 shrimp in one sitting and lost their taste for the crustacean forever. 

How much shrimp would I have to eat at Red Lobster’s "Endless Shrimp for $15.99" promotion to make it a net financial loss for the restaurant? from AskReddit

Again, employees loathe dealing with these types of customers. Per Taylor, it’s typical for servers to come up with tricks to slow down eating in order to reduce their un-tipped workload. “Mostly this consists of looking busy or chilling in the kitchen to avoid tables for longer than usual, especially to ensure that if a customer does order a refill, that all members of their party will order together rather than one by one,” he explains.

Other tricks involve filling customers up on things like soda refills and Red Lobster’s famous Cheddar Bay Biscuits. “We go through more biscuits during Endless Shrimp than any other time,” Taylor says. “Gotta fill ’em up on bread.”

For his part, Jon, a 28-year-old in New York, loves a good all-you-can-eat and is particularly fond of Endless Shrimp. Although it started as a summer promotion, it’s now one of Red Lobster’s daily deals, and so, on Mondays, you can have an unlimited amount of coconut shrimp, shrimp scampi, grilled shrimp skewers and something called Fiesta Shrimp (i.e., shrimp covered in nacho cheese) all for the low, low price of $17.99! For Jon, then, it’s equal parts good deal and personal challenge. “My record at Endless Shrimp is 153 shrimp,” he says. “I’ll never be able to top it because they’ve changed the size of the shrimp in their shrimp scampi, and they’re much larger now.”

But unlike most, Jon swears that he’s a great tipper. “I always tip 50 percent if I’m there for 90 minutes or less, and 100 percent if I’m there for more than 90 minutes,” he tells me. “This is definitely not the reason I do it, but it helps with service. One year when I was going for Endless Shrimp often, I’d get the same server, and they’d bring me my drink and have put in my first order by the time they came to greet me.”

Of course, some embarrassing incidents have kept Jon’s gluttony in check, including the time he had to cancel a date after an afternoon of Endless Shrimp. “I ended up sitting on the porcelain throne for two hours,” he admits. Along those lines, he does feel guilty about his under-the-sea excess. “I do my best in other areas of my life to help people who don’t have the food they need to survive,” he says. “Because we live in a capitalist horror show.”

Let them eat Cheddar Bay Biscuits.