At one with the sea — that's the basic premise behind the newest restaurant format prototype by Orlando-based Red Lobster, the world's largest seafood casual dining company with 667 units in the United States and Canada and about 70,000 employees.

The new design, described as “Coastal Home,” is meant to evoke the bright, open feel of the ocean. So far, only four new units have opened — one each in Kissimmee, Fla., Orlando, Destin, Fla., and Concord, N.C. But the company plans to roll out the Coastal Home concept in all new-build units from coast to coast, and in restaurants it plans to remodel.

So why the new look and feel? The casual dining category is a competitive one and any differentiation is good for business. “Our guests have an emotional tie to the ocean,” says John Altomare, Red Lobster's senior vice president of operations development. “It's a place they go to relax and connect, to vacation, to enjoy great times with family and friends. Our Coastal Home look reinforces these feelings and memories.”

Red Lobster's business is already on a roll — July same-store sales were up a healthy 12%. The company is a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI), which had total sales of $2.34 billion in fiscal 2002 (ending May 31, 2002), a 7.1% increase over 2001. Darden also owns Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones BBQ Sports Bar restaurants.

Bolder design is core to the Coastal Home concept — designer Chute Gerdeman created a more wide open floor plan and used bold pastel accents inside, while lightening up the exterior colors and including copper-colored roofs.