For Luke Holden, lobster fishing isn't just a business--it is a lifestyle. A third-generation lobsterman from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, he was practically raised on boats, wharfs, and lobster processing facilities. Holden founded Luke's Lobster as a side project, while working in finance in New York City. Eleven years later, he helms a multi-million lobster roll business--one he built by honoring his heritage, following his passion, and innovating every step of the way.
Luke's Lobster's wholly owned supply chain is at the heart of its value proposition. The business doesn't work with middlemen--a revolutionary concept for the restaurant industry. They take accountability for every aspect of their food's production, from catch to table. Their innovative approach benefits the coastal communities they work with, as well as the customers they serve.
A "lightbulb" over lunch
The Luke's concept was born from an online search and a bout of homesickness. Holden had taken a break from the family business to get a degree in finance at Georgetown University. He was working on Wall Street and "liked it well enough," but he wasn't entirely satisfied. In the summer of 2009, he was craving a taste of home. So, he searched online for a place to get a lobster roll. He was shocked he couldn't find a quality, affordable option in all of New York City. He immediately got to work on a business plan.
Holden found his business partner, Ben Conniff, on Craig's List, "of all places." Holden's father, Jeff, was an early investor. Luke credits him for teaching him about entrepreneurship, as well as the lobster industry. Jeff was the first person to own a lobster processing license in the state of Maine, and Holden got his first lobster license when he was 16.
Together, they transformed a 250-sq. ft. former consignment shop in the East Village into a lobster roll shack. They sourced the ingredients themselves, drawing on their relationships with Maine-area fishermen. Because they weren't paying a middleman, they saved money, and they passed those savings on to their customers. The resulting lobster rolls were fresh, tasty, and sold for a fraction of NYC restaurant prices.
Word got around fast. In May 2010, Luke's Lobster opened its second location on the Upper East Side. At age 24, Holden quit his bank job and returned to his roots, full-time.
As the business grew, Holden and Conniff vowed to continue to own their entire supply chain, so they could ensure quality ingredients and processes. Today, they work with fishermen up and down the eastern seaboard. They transport live lobster, shrimp, and crab to their production facility in Saco, Maine. They cook the meat themselves. And they deliver the food to its destination. "We are in control of the product from the minute it leaves the water, to the minute it gets on our guest's plate," says Holden.
Since Holden draws on decade-old relationships and first-hand knowledge of lobster fishing, his success is hard to replicate. Sustainable ingredients and transparent processes have led to steady growth. They now have 26 shacks in the U.S., 10 international locations, and collaborate with several businesses, including Whole Foods.
They are also a certified B Corporation, which means they meet the highest social and environmental standards and balance profit and purpose. "We believe in the concept of stakeholder theory versus shareholder theory," explains Holden. "We are truly value-oriented in a way that promotes long-term relationships with all of our stakeholders--from our guests, to our teammates, to our fishermen."
New goals, same values
Holden admits the business wouldn't work unless he and his team loved what they do. He jokes he chose two 24/7 industries: seafood processing and the restaurant industry. His plant is open 21 hours a day, six days a week. And as anyone who has worked in the food industry knows, restaurants are busiest when most people are off.
Though the business has grown exponentially, Holden is still in the thick of it. He is not afraid to get down and dirty--to scrub a floor or clean a toilet, or to catch and process a lobster. And he is still happiest on a dock. "That is what makes me who I am," he says.
Holden predicts continued expansion, at home and abroad. And his secret is a traceable, sustainable supply chain.