Red Lobster revealed Thursday that Black Box Intelligence leader Kelli Valade will serve as its next CEO.
Valade’s tenure will begin August 2. The move comes less than a week after the chain announced current CEO Kim Lopdrup will be retiring.
She has served as Black Box’s president and CEO since 2019. Prior to that, she spent more than 22 years at Brinker International, most recently as brand president of Chili’s. She also worked as chief operating officer and senior vice president of human resources.
“I love the restaurant industry because it’s about so much more than great food – it’s about the great people who are truly heroes on the frontlines of the restaurants delivering a great experience to guests every day,” said Valade in a statement. “Red Lobster has incredible people and an amazing culture in place, along with a solid business model and a strong foundation as an iconic and differentiated brand. My job as the brand’s new leader is to inspire and develop our people while also leveraging the brand’s strengths and finding ways to build on them for even greater success. I am looking forward to a very bright future together.”
The industry veteran will succeed Lopdrup, who helming Red Lobster for 14 years in two different stints. The first came in 2004-2011 when he served as president under the guidance of Darden Restaurants. In 2014, Golden Gate Capital purchased Red Lobster for $2.1 billion and took the company private. Lopdrup returned that year as CEO, and has helmed the chain ever since. In August 2020, Golden Gate agreed to sell its remaining equity stake in Red Lobster to a consortium of brand investor Thai Union and Red Lobster management, called Seafood Alliance.
Lopdrup is departing after leading the company through COVID, something he called the “greatest challenge Red Lobster has ever faced.” The chain pivoted by offering Rapid Red Curbside Pickup, delivery, and Family Feasts. The concept tripled off-premises sales as a result. As COVID restrictions have relented, Red Lobster has reopened dining rooms and offered single-use paper menus and QR code-enabled menus that can be read on a mobile device. Guests can also pay contact-free via Apple Pay or by credit card on Presto tablets at each table and sanitized for each party.
“When I announced my plan to retire, I promised our people we would recruit an outstanding new CEO to lead Red Lobster to even greater success over the next generation, and I absolutely believe Kelli is that person,” Lopdrup said in a statement. “Her experience and deep industry insights coupled with her integrity and commitment to fostering a purpose-driven culture are the perfect fit as we begin this new chapter. I have never been more excited about Red Lobster’s future.”
The pandemic wasn’t an entirely smooth ride for Red Lobster. In August 2020, Debtwire reported that Red Lobster was exploring strategic options after facing “unprecedented challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” The publication said the chain was dealing with earnings pressure and near-term maturities. In January, Red Lobster completed debt refinancing.
The company is confident in Valade’s ability to lead it toward a brighter future.
“We are delighted to welcome Kelli as Red Lobster’s next CEO,” said Red Lobster Chairman Rittirong Boonmechote in a statement. “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. She is the ideal leader to help fulfill our vision of making Red Lobster ‘Where the world goes for seafood, now and for generations.'”
Valade currently serves on the boards of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF) and Seasoned, as well as on the executive committee of the board of the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF). She also currently sits on the Board of Trustees for the Shelton School in Dallas.