“Last Night at the Lobster” by Stewart O’Nan (2007) – 146 pages
“Last Night at the Lobster” is a novella about the closing of a Red Lobster in New Britain, Connecticut. Headquarters said it wasn’t making enough money. The manager of this Red Lobster, Manny DeLong, is going to be transferred to a nearby Olive Garden but only as an assistant manager. He can only take five of his current 45 employees along with him to the Olive Garden; the rest are out of a job. He’s already told them, and now four days before Christmas it is the last day this Red Lobster will be open, and Manny must make do with those employees who choose to show up for work.
One of the nice things about “Last Night at the Lobster” is that you get a first-hand manager’s take on all the inside details of how a restaurant operates. There are the cooks and other food preparers, the food servers, the dish washers, the bartenders, and the host or hostess. Each person must do their job and help each other in order to make sure all the customers are properly taken care of. It’s the manager’s job to keep everyone working together and as happy as possible. You see everything through Manny’s eyes. His job is complicated by a snowstorm, and he has to keep the parking lot and sidewalk safe for the customers, and he is the only one available to do it. Also one of the waitresses, Jacquie, is his former girlfriend for whom Manny still has a lot of strong feelings.
Then there are the customers. There are little kids who throw food, eat the wrong things, and vomit on the floor on their way out. There are the parents who don’t watch over their kids. There are people who expect perfect service but leave nothing or under tip. There are customers who complain about every little thing. There are customers who take all the sugar packages out of the dispensers home with them. It now seems to me almost miraculous how these restaurants keep running each day.
So many stories and novels have independent Mom and Pop restaurants in them. I suppose these restaurants have a charm and romance about them, but they are not the reality. The reality today is that probably about eighty percent of the restaurants are franchises like Red Lobster, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, etc., etc. I suppose some writers are scared that if they used a real franchise in their story and wrote anything at all negative about them, a pack of franchise lawyers will show up at their doorstep with lawsuits in hand Stewart O’Nan gains points for realism and credibility for locating his story in a Red Lobster. Besides he gets to mention the fake stained glass lamps over the tables, the Lobsterita which is the Red Lobster’s margarita, and the plastic marlin sculpture that decorates the restaurant.
This novella gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. Since the story takes place four days before Christmas, “Last Night at the Lobster’ could be called a Christmas story. The Christmas lights and tree are up in the restaurant and the snow is falling. With the Red Lobster closing, I can’t say the story is uplifting, but it is exhilarating to watch all these different people working together to keep the customers happy. It’s happening everyday in hundreds of thousands of restaurants around the world.