Acclaimed writer Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Last Night at the Lobster, isn’t about a couple who hits the motel after one too many gargantuan Lobsteritas — instead it follows a hard-working general manager, Manny DeLeon, through his last night at a Red Lobster in New Briton, Connecticut, that has been closed by parent corporation Darden Restaurants. O’Nan got the idea after a Red Lobster near his home in Avon suffered a similar fate. “I knew how it fit into the community and started thinking about how every restaurant is a world onto itself,” he tells us. “I thought of that suddenly going away.” We asked him what he learned about the chain while doing research so obsessive that it involved poaching the Lob’s menus and coasters.
Did you think about fictionalizing the restaurant, rather than calling it a Red Lobster?
Very briefly. But then I thought, “No, let’s stick with this recognizable American icon.”
To what degree are the details — menu items such as Aztec chicken, for instance — true to an actual Red Lobster?
All the menu items are straight from the menu, which I pilfered. I carry a rucksack-type bag and tossed stuff in there — drink menu, lunch menu, coasters. I’d take a camera to the Lobster, and I’d be sitting there with my family taking pictures.
What else proved useful for your research?
The blogs by people who were actively working there. They were usually pissed off about their shifts and who got sat at their tables. There were a lot of complaints about customers.
You must’ve come across news about labor lawsuits — did you think about writing a more explicit indictment of Darden Restaurants?
I’m not sure it’s an indictment of Red Lobster. I came around to Manny’s viewpoint of, “Here’s a valuable institution that’s been lost, and I wish I could save it, but I can’t.” A lot of people see chains as something to poke fun at. There are a lot of things wrong with them, but any place where folks can go to have a good time and feel special…
At one point Ty, the African-American chef, describes the cuisine as “white people food for white people,” but Manhattan’s Red Lobster is popular among African-Americans — did you think about race while writing?
I saw a lot of that on the blogs. I wanted to leave that alone a little bit. In the case of the area I was writing about — New Briton, Connecticut — it’s typical that the service economy is very multicultural, where folks coming to the mall are white-bread folks from richer suburbs.
During your research, what surprised you the most about Red Lobster?
I guess I was surprised by how much was not fresh. I was also shocked that Red Lobster, unlike other chains, isn’t franchised, so you can’t succeed by running it.