When you place an ad on Craigslist, it’s usually for an old POS furniture that you want to get rid of. You would never imagine it being used to find a business partner for your soon-to-be ridiculously tasty seafood company. Well, as crazy as that sounds, Luke Holden did exactly that, and soon, Luke’s Lobster was born.
Luke Holden and Ben Conniff are not your average entrepreneurs. With zero restaurant experience, they decided to embark on a freshly-caught venture due to their determination and passion for the crustacean world. Before the creation of Luke’s Lobster, Holden was an investment banker working in the city and Conniff was a food writer. But with their joint love for Maine and its lobster rolls (and a little help from Holden’s father’s expertise), they managed to open over 20 restaurants, two trucks, a cart, and soon-to-be six locations in Japan. While this may seem rare to have a business boom after only a couple of years, Holden and Conniff prove that you don’t need a business degree to actually begin a new venture. All you need is determination, heart, and a little bit of money (okay, a lot of money, but that’s for another story).
We got to hang with the Luke and Ben at their classic East Village location where we chatted about their business, that infamous Craigslist ad, and, of course, their hidden talents. Meet Luke Holden and Ben Conniff.
Luke: Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Ben: Deep River/Old Lyme, CT
Luke: Biddeford, Maine
Ben: Brooklyn, NY
Must-have item from your menu:
Luke: Shrimp Roll, no mayo
Ben: Shrimp roll w/ a small clam chowder
NYC restaurant you’ve been meaning to check out:
Luke: Harold’s Meat + Three
Ben: Glady’s Caribbean
Song you can’t get out of your head:
Luke: “How to Be a Human Being” by Glass Animals
Ben: “Yellow Eyes” by Rayland Baxter
What are you craving now:
Luke: Right this minute… good Chinese food!
Best way to spend a workless weekend:
Luke: Saltwater fishing
Ben: Backpacking (out of the city), or grilling, an outdoor concert, and a good carpentry or landscaping project (in the city).
Luke: Makers and Ginger
Luke: Hockey player
Ben: Photoshopping people’s faces on other people’s bodies
Luke: why did you decide to begin Luke’s Lobster and how did you make the company come to fruition?
I grew up in Cape Elizabeth, just outside of Portland, Maine. My father worked in the lobstering industry for his entire career, first as a lobsterman, then a dealer and a processor. I grew up on lobster boats and eating authentic Maine-style lobster rolls.
After college, I moved to New York City to work in finance; one hot summer afternoon, I was craving a lobster roll and realized that there really weren’t any good options. All of the available rolls were overpriced, even though the delicious lobster meat was covered up by filler and too much mayo.
I decided to open Luke’s Lobster to replicate and share the exact same food experience that I grew up enjoying — and I did it by teaming [up with] great people that had the same vision and passion as I did!
How did you guys meet and become partners of Luke’s Lobster?
Ben: I was looking for a job in the food industry. Anywhere. Probably as a dishwasher. But no one would hire me as a dishwasher. Then I found a post on Craigslist from a guy crazy enough to hire me to help start a lobster roll business. I think my background in food media, combined with my undying passion for Maine and seafood, sold him on an otherwise dubious decision.
Luke: I was looking for a partner that was willing to take a chance and was willing to buy in on the vision I had for Luke’s Lobster. Ben was clearly very bright (Yale grad), spoke of his desire to work hard, appeared to be very altruistic, and share a similar passion and vision for what Luke’s could be.
Ben: You applied to Luke’s Craiglist ad to be his business partner when, at the time, you only had experience being a food writer. What was it about the position that enticed you to go after it?
Ben: I was sick of writing, of sitting at a computer, of waiting for emails from editors, and I found myself always wanting to quit and get my hands on some food. I decided that was the industry for me. Lobster has been the pinnacle of food for me since I was a little kid visiting the docks in Five Islands, ME on family vacation. I didn’t know what sustainability was then, I just loved the taste and the lobstering lifestyle. Since then, I’d learned and become passionate about sustainability and was really jazzed that my favorite food epitomized that value.
You recently just opened Luke’s at Tenants Harbor in Maine. Tell us a little bit about that and how that came to be.
Ben: I’ll let Luke tell most of the story, but from my perspective, Luke basically called me and said,”I met some extraordinary people in Tenants Harbor who want to bring lobstermen back to their dock, which was struggling to compete with large lobster buyers in the area.”He said we had an opportunity to partner with lobstermen via a co-op directly at the source, to support their entrepreneurial efforts, and to tell their story to our audience across the country. And there was a recently-closed restaurant on the dock that was sorely missed in the community. Basically, we’d have to double our menu offerings, learn to run a full kitchen, staff it in a sparsely populated rural area, operate two hours from the nearest airport, and in the end, it would be extremely difficult to make a profit as it would only be busy a few months of the year. And I thought, this is exactly what we’re about. Accepting a huge challenge, being innovative yet authentic in an extremely traditional game, and doing whatever we can to support our roots and industry.
Luke: I knew the patriarch of the Miller family (Peter Miller) from our time serving on the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative Board. The family and wharf were at a crossroads as to whether or not to sell the wharf or try a new business plan, as the old one wasn’t working. Designing a co-op that has less risk and additional revenue streams was just disruptive enough to bring fisherman together to revitalize the wharf in sustainable manner. I am very proud of the business we’ve built and will continue to grow at Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten pertaining to work:
Ben: “In the restaurant business, if you ever feel comfortable, like you’ve got it all right… you will fail.” from Henry Meer at the former City Hall restaurant.
Luke Lobster’s lobster rolls have been named “the best lobster roll” time and time again. Why do you believe your lobster roll knocks it out of the park every single time?
Ben: It’s all about the lobster. We buy only the best direct from the dock, and cut out every middleman so that we are able to get it cooked and shipped to the restaurants as fast as humanly possible. We follow a scientific process to get every morsel of lobster cooked to the perfect temperature that maximizes flavor and texture. And we never cover up the flavor of the lobster by mixing it with scoops of mayo or filler like onions, celery, etc. We add only trace accents that bring out the sweet lobster flavor and showcase its quality.
With 19 Luke Lobster restaurants, two food trucks, and five Tokyo locations, how do you guys manage this world-wide restaurant domination on the daily basis?
Ben: We actually now have 22 restaurants, two trucks, a cart, and will soon have 6 locations in Japan that we manage with incredible people. We’ve been very lucky to have passionate, smart, and hard-working folks at our side from day one, and we’re humble enough to acknowledge that they are the drivers of this organization. Without listening and reacting to their feedback, we’d be nowhere. That extends from the brand new girl working the toaster to our Director of HR and Director Operations, both of whom were the new girl working the toaster when we opened in 2009 and grew with us.
Luke: With a background in investment banking and making a profit within three weeks of opening your Manhattan shop, what financial advice would you give to someone who’s looking to open up their own business?
Luke: Well for one, consider my luck extremely rare! Starting a business is tough work. Expect the script to change more than once. Add 20% onto your budget and be okay saying no to something that is nice to have, but not a must-have.
Ben + Luke: Any rad future plans for Luke Lobster you can spill the beans on?
Ben: Definitely. We’re opening a Miami shack in Brickell City Centre next week and can’t wait to bring a piece of Maine’s summer to Florida’s winter. We also have a restaurant at 38th and Broadway in New York slated to open early in 2017.
Ben + Luke: Words of wisdom for future entrepreneurs?
Ben: Get a lot of sleep now, while you’re still a future entrepreneur — you’ll be glad later. And don’t try to be Steve Jobs… if you’re convinced you’re smarter than the people around you, you will lose all the great insights they bring to the table, and sooner or later you’ll lose them.
Luke: Do it with a partner.
If you couldn’t stop drooling while reading their interview, then make sure you go to their website and visit one of their locations. Also, make sure to follow their Instagram account to get a healthy dose of lobster in your life.
Written by Raven Ishak
Photography by Vanessa Granda