Have you been to a Long John Silver’s restaurant lately? Well, neither have most people over the last decade or two – and that is the problem. What began in Lexington, Kentucky as an original restaurant concept with the goal of bringing classic fish and chips from the coast to the land-locked cities and states around America, has become a restaurant with a name many people may recognize but have also probably never eaten at – or at least not lately. While new management is attempting to right the ship, let’s take a look at why the chain got into this state with the top 10 untold truths to Long John Silver’s decline.
10. The Food Isn’t Great
While the assumption by many would be that it’s pretty hard to mess up fried fish and french fries… according to many, Long John Silver’s managed to do exactly that. The good news here is that new management has made a strong commitment over the last few years to change and improve the menu, This should have been something the old management group focused on years ago. The fish – the reason most people would go to Long John Silver’s in the first place – has been panned by reviewers and customers alike and when it comes to the shrimp, one review discussing just that said that it probably isn’t possible to fry up shrimp that you found under the seat of your car while looking for lost change among the dusty grime, but if it was, this is roughly what they would taste like. If they had to find a positive, it was that the breading on these inedible crustacean nuggets was… fine.Ouch! New CEO, James O’Reilly announced a full menu overhaul back in 2018, but things have been moving slowly on that front (as they often do with larger companies). While there are other factors that have contributed to the decline of the restaurant chain, the food itself is definitely one of the biggest. Customers might be able to forgive certain things to get great food, but without that, every other deficiency looms even larger.
9. No One Seems To Know What To Do With It
Founder and original owner Jim Patterson was the head of Long John Silver’s for the first three decades of its existence. By the late 90s things weren’t going all too well and in 1999 they were bought by A&W – which was then acquired, in 2002, by Yum! Brands (the company that also owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut). Then in 2011 a consortium of investors (including original founder, Jim Patterson) bought Long John Silver’s back from Yum! And just four years after that in 2015, said consortium was sitting around the negotiation table coming very close to a deal to sell to KeyCorp, a company based in Texas,. This deal fell through at the last minute though as both sides agreed to “terminate the agreement.” Three different owners or groups have had the opportunity to revive Long John Silver’s and a fourth wanted that opportunity, and yet the last 20 years have been the worst for the fried-fish chain. Although, they looked very ready to sell just five years ago, the current owner group has said that they don’t have any plans to sell in the “foreseeable future.” Hopeful, that means they can focus their energy where it belongs, on the restaurants themselves and doing what needs to be done to make America want to eat there again.
8. Took A Long Time Get “Healthy” Options
It’s true that people love fried food. Drenching something in batter and frying it in oil makes almost anything taste better, we can all agree on that. But we can also all agree that the last couple decades has seen people become more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies and recognizing that too much fried food isn’t the healthiest way to go. However, while other less-than-healthy chains recognized the changing times long ago, Long John Silver’s either didn’t see it, or just didn’t want to do anything about it until very recently. McDonald’s introduced salads years ago (even though, with the dressing, the calorie count is higher than you might think) and you can get an egg-white egg McMuffin or yogurt and granola from their breakfast menu. Burger King offers a grilled chicken burger as an option. Wendy’s has a grilled chicken wrap on their menu. All of these are healthier, less fat-filled options. But it took Long John Silver’s until 2018 to finally announce plans to revamp their menu and introduce grilled items, such as salmon and shrimp. But not only are they really late to the lower-fat food game, they have been slow to even get on the field of play. The new menu initially rolled out at just 54 locations – new grills were required so most locations couldn’t implement the changes right away.
7. Co-Branding Maybe Wasn’t The Best Idea
Sometimes co-branding between two companies is a brilliant idea and sometimes it isn’t. The original idea behind Long John Silver’s was to give people the feel of a coastal seafood eating experience where one wasn’t previously available. Restaurants with blue roofs and a nautical theme tried to bring that experience to the non-coastal folks in America. However, back in the early 2000s when the Yum! Brands corporation became the new owners, they made the decision to bring some of their restaurants together in split, co-branded locations. In their minds this was probably a smart financial move to bring restaurants together, and might have seemed like a smart “2 birds, one stone” kind of thing. But this wasn’t the best move for Long John Silver’s. Getting rid of the theme-designed restaurants and throwing them in a basic split-location next to a Burger King or a Taco Bell definitely doesn’t say sea-side eatery. While it might have brought in a few more, or at least different, customers who might not have checked them out before due to the other attached restaurant, it definitely didn’t prove valuable enough against the loss of visitors who didn’t want to have a wonderful seafood meal in a generic table and chairs local.
6. Was The Home Of “The Worst Meal In America”
The chain was already struggling in 2013, due to multiple factors, including the greasy and fatty menu. So, it probably didn’t help things when The Center for Science in the Public Interest (a consumer advocacy group) declared the Big Catch plate at Long John Silver’s, “The worst restaurant meal in America.” The restaurant had just added the “Big Catch” meal to their menu earlier that year – in an obvious thumbing of their noses to the idea of healthy eating. The Big Catch meal looks to have been discontinued, but at the time it included: a large piece of haddock – breaded and fried, hush puppies and onion rings. We can probably all admit it sounds yummy but wait until you hear the numbers. This mega-meal clocked in at over 1300 calories, 33 grams of trans fats (which is “more trans fats than you should eat in two weeks!) and a ridiculous 3700 milligrams of sodium. Executive director for the CSPI, called the Big Catch, “A heart attack on a hook,” while also noting that the company was taking perfectly healthy fish — and entombing it in a thick crust of batter and partially hydrogenated oil. CSPI went so far as to say they would consider taking legal action if Long John Silver’s didn’t stop using partially hydrogenated oil.
5. Attempts To Expand Overseas Didn’t Go Very Well
When your restaurant is already struggling at home, spending millions of dollars to expand and open up locations overseas would sound like a bad idea to most people. But unfortunately it didn’t sound like a bad idea to the folks running Long John Silver’s in the mid 2000s. They thought that bringing a fried fish chain Down Under to country that prides itself on great fish n’ chips made total sense. Not only that, but they did it along with A&W in one of those split-location deals, which made it as bland and generic a dining experience as possible. Well, to no one’s surprise (except the bosses at Yum! Brands – who owned Long John Silver’s at the time) the experiment never really picked up much steam. The Australian consumer knows what they like and Long John Silver’s wasn’t on that list. They came, they saw and within two years the location had closed its doors. If you go to that location in Sydney. Australia today you will find a liquor store in its place. Yum! Brands executives probably drowned their sorrows in more than a few bottles of liquor after that ill-conceived overseas expansion plan.
4. Lent Only Comes Around Once a Year
The Long John Silver’s ownership group has lots of money and we all know that money equals power. But even Jeff Bezos (the man who owns Amazon) doesn’t have enough money or power to change the calendar and make Lent last all year long. Not that Mr. Bezos would want to do that, but the people running Long John Silver’s most definitely would – if they could! You see, there are over 50 Million catholics in the United States who observe Lent which, as one of its tennents, asks followers to refrain from eating red meat on Fridays. Well, this “ban” on red meat leads to a huge boost in fish consumption – which is right in Long John Silver’s wheel house. And the numbers speak for themselves. Going back just three years, in 2017 the restaurant chain sold an amazing 2 million pounds of seafood during Lent – the biggest days were Ash Wednesday and the first Friday of Lent (which lasts 40 days ). Friday sales at the chain go up by an average of 84% during the Lent season. This time of year is so important to Long John Silver’s that they begin their big advertising push up to six months in advance every year.
3. The Restaurants Needed an Overhaul
For many years now the food hasn’t been the only part of the Long John Silver’s experience that has been in desperate need of an overhaul. The Restaurants themselves have found themselves neglected by management and forgotten by time. The free standing restaurants with the iconic blue roofs haven’t aged well, especially on the inside where financial troubles by the chain meant that upkeep and modernization was never on the to-do list (or if it was, it never got done). Then you had all of the split-location spaces that were implemented by then owners Yum! Brands. The spaces didn’t work as a boost to the restaurant and they too have also seen themselves neglected over time – even though they started off their lives looking pretty plain and unappealing right from the get go. It took them a while to address the problem but the new ownership and new CEO, James O’Reilly, have been working on improvements to the eateries around the country. It began with a complete redesign of the flagship restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. While the classic blue and yellow colors are still there, the blue is a darker, more modern shade. Also, the fish logo is more modern and not the cartoony version from previous decades. They also introduced modern, digital order displays and better drive-thru technology. As the new design gets implemented across the country, Long John Silver’s is hoping that it, along with the new menu they recently introduced, is enough to bring customers back and keep them coming back for years to come.
2. Seafood Makes It More Difficult to Really Lower Prices
One of the most important things for consumers in their decision-making process of deciding what to buy, where to eat, etc… is price! You see price cutting and competition all the time in the fast food market. McDonalds will gut the price of one of their burgers and then Burger King will come in and go even lower on one of their items. And when it comes to the volume of product they are getting and the margins on all the ingredients, these guys can afford to cut prices – sometimes more than one would imagine to still be profitable. But when it comes to seafood it isn’t so easy. When it comes to fish, the margins just aren’t the same. So with much smaller profit margins on one of the main components of almost every dish…well, Long John Silver’s just doesn’t have the same kind of room to play with when it comes to prices. Long John Silver’s CEO once talked about this stating that one of the more intense factors in the industry today, is value competition….basically balancing and maintaining the quality while giving the consumer affordable value. While price is very important, Long John Silver’s seems to understand that most consumers won’t come back for a piece of bad fried fish – no matter how low the price is. Give the people something worth the price you are asking and more often than not they will keep coming back.
1. Long John Silver’s Filed For Bankruptcy
In 1998 Long John Silver’s filed for, and was granted, Bankruptcy Protection. At the time, the company listed their total assets at a value of $329 million. That isn’t bad right? Except that they had creditors, from investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, inventory suppliers and others, after them for over $450 million. It was during this phase that the company was saved from bankruptcy and bought up by A&W a year later in 1999. They found themselves with new owners again, Yum! Brands, just a few years later when they purchased A&W. The company was obviously operating in some major debt back in the 1990s with no regard for the balance sheet – or seemingly making improvements and changes that were sorely needed while losing revenue. However, the new owners (which include the original founder of the restaurant Jim Patterson) have been very focused on upgrading the entire Long John Silver’s experience – from the menu to the restaurants themselves – and all while supposedly keeping a watchful eye on that balance sheet so as to not get into that same trouble again.