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How Red Lobster got its start in Lakeland

As the seafood chain announces plans to close restaurants nationwide, take a look back at how Red Lobster first started in Lakeland, FL.

The exterior of the Lakeland Fishing Outfitters Tackle Shop which was the original location of Red Lobster, viewed from the parking lot.

Did you know this spot near Lake Parker was the start of Red Lobster?

Photo by LALtoday

Seafood chain Red Lobster has announced plans to shutter more than 50 of its locations across the US and filed for bankruptcy — but before the days of Endless Shrimp and Cheddar Bay Biscuits, Red Lobster was just one restaurant in Lakeland, FL.

Entrepreneurs Bill Darden + Charley Woodsby opened the Red Lobster Inn on the shores of Lake Parker in 1968 (they dropped “Inn” from the name soon after). The building at 1330 E. Memorial Blvd. was leased from Lawton Chiles, a native Lakelander and eventual governor of Florida. Chiles was one of Red Lobster’s first investors.

Red Lobster became known for its casual feel and fresh seafood, and it didn’t take long for the rest of the nation to take notice of the small Lakeland eatery. General Mills acquired the business just two years after opening. It quickly started expanding from there, branching across the US and into Canada by 1983. It’s currently owned by seafood producer Thai Union Group.

The exterior of the front entrance of Red Lobster in Lakeland. Customers sit in front of the door under a sign at the top of a short staircase.

You can find a Red Lobster near you in Lakeland and Winter Haven.

Photo by LALtoday

Through the decades, Red Lobster added fan favorite menu items and specials. It introduced popcorn shrimp in 1974, and Cheddar Bay Biscuits hit the menu in 1992. The all-you-can-eat Endless Shrimp promotion began in 2004, but it led to $11 million in losses in the third quarter of 2023.

Despite several closures in Central Florida, there are no current plans to close the Lakeland location at 3706 US Hwy. 98 N. near the Lakeland Square Mall. Want to get a glimpse inside the original restaurant? It’s now paying homage to its seafood roots as Lakeland Fishing Outfitters Tackle Shop — just look for the building with the sealife murals on Lake Parker.

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