- Red Lobster has selected Kelli Valade, president and CEO of Black Box Intelligence, as its CEO, according to a company release. Valade succeeds Kim Lopdrup, who is retiring, on Aug. 2.
- Prior to her tenure at Black Box, Valade worked for Brinker International for more than two decades, most recently serving as brand president for Chili's. During that time, Valade was responsible for more than 80,000 employees and 1,600-plus Chili's restaurants.
- Valade inherits Red Lobster after the company refinanced the remainder of a $380 million loan in January, The Orlando Sentinel reports. Last year, the company said the burden of that debt could push it to close some locations. The chain has also had to contend with seafood supply chain disruption over the past year.
The end of Lopdrup's tenure follows the close of Golden Gate Capital's ownership of the seafood chain. The private equity firm bought Red Lobster from Darden Restaurants in 2014 for $2.1 billion, but it sold its remaining equity stake to existing investor Thai Union Group last summer. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
Red Lobster's management remained intact through that shift, but Valade's leadership could usher in fresh strategy for the company as the casual dining segment begins to recover from COVID-19's impact.
"We are delighted to welcome Kelli as Red Lobster's next CEO. She has proven that she can lead large casual dining companies very successfully, and she brings all the key skills that we were hoping to find," Red Lobster Chairman Rittirong Boonmechote said in the release.
Valade's experience with the casual segment could help speed Red Lobster's recovery and better compete with full-service rivals, which were dealt the brunt of the pandemic's foodservice challenges. In January, the NPD group reported that while casual chains experienced transaction declines of 30% in December compared to declines of 70% in April 2020, QSR chains were much better off. These restaurants only experienced transaction declines of 8% in December compared to a 35% drop in April 2020.
But now halfway into 2021, diner demand for eating on-premise is flourishing, a trend that benefits casual operators. For example, more than 3.7 million diners used the Yelp app to dine out in May, marking the platform's highest totals ever and blowing past pre-pandemic peaks. The number of diners seated at restaurants via Yelp also rose 48% in May compared to May 2019.