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Red Lobster testing 'pay at the counter' concept

NEW YORK (AP) -- Red Lobster is testing a lunch service where diners pay at the counter rather than having a waiter or waitress take their order.

The concept, known in the industry as "fast-casual," comes as people increasingly move away from full-service restaurants in favor of places such as Chipotle or Panera, where they feel they can get restaurant-quality food in a more convenient setting and without having to tip.

As such chains gain in popularity, full-service restaurants found it harder to justify their higher prices. Darden Restaurants Inc., the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has blamed the shift in eating habits in part for an 8 percent decline in its customer traffic since 2008.

To revitalize its brand, the company has been revamping menus, launching new ad campaigns and emphasizing affordability with special deals. But the efforts have yet to take hold, with the company expecting sales at Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse locations open at least a year to fall 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent for the fiscal year ending in May.

A spokesman for Darden, Justin Sikora, says the test of the "Seaside Express" lunch service started this week at two locations in Orlando, Fla., near the company's headquarters.

Customers place their orders at a counter and a server brings their food out to them when it's ready. The service is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with prices ranging from $6.99 to $8.99 for a selection of sandwiches, salads, soups and sides. The chain's cheddar biscuits, which are served before meals in the full-service area, are also available for free with the express service.

The two locations still have separate seating areas for people who want a full-service meal.