To say Luke Holden grew up in a fishing family would be an understatement. His grandfather, while technically an insurance man, was a seasoned fisherman and his father was a paid lobsterman. "When I got in trouble at school, I was dropped off at the docks to work with my dad," the Mainer remembers. When Holden turned 13, he started learning the lobstering trade, and by high school, he owned his own boat. "Your office was your boat in the ocean," he says. Which was part of the reason he loved it.
Looking back, it seems fated that Holden would do something with shellfish. But a restaurateur with a multi-million-dollar concept? That was harder to predict. "You never know what the haul is going to look like," Holden says, "and every day presents something new. If it's windy, you can't go out. If it's stormy but not windy, you're still going out to fish."
Mother Nature, in the end, was what hooked him. Well that--and the fact that eventually he couldn't ignore that fishing was in his blood.
Though Holden, like many impressionable college graduates, followed his friends into the world of investment banking in 2007, he knew his heart wasn't in it. The recession and job insecurity didn't help, either.
"One day, I stumbled across a lobster roll that was garbage and overpriced," Holden says. That prompted him to research what else what was out there, and to find--to his dismay--that most rolls weren't worth the white tablecloths on which they were served. "Why are they screwing this up so bad?" he thought. "Do they not know what a traditional roll is?"
Soon he was writing the business proposal for what would eventually become Luke's Lobster, a chain of seafood restaurants that made $11.4 million last year. By the end of this year, the company projects that figure will soar up to $15 million.
From Craigslist to Crab Rolls
From the looks of its nautical-themed decor and well-executed Web presence, Luke's Lobster has its concept down pat. Stepping into a Luke's really feels like Cape Elizabeth, with the chalkboards and stool seats to boot.
But Holden "didn't jump into this with all the confidence in the world," he says. In fact, outside of the little boat he managed to turn into a bona fide seafood business in high school, he knew little about the real thing. Still, if anyone was going to bring lobster rolls to New York City, he thought, it was going to be him.
After soliciting a business partner on Craigslist, Holden received an intriguing response from a fellow New Englander. "I had jumped around between two editorial jobs and freelancing, and was focused on food writing because I'd been cooking my whole life," future vice president Ben Conniff recalls. But he found himself doing more cooking and eating than writing. When he spotted Holder's posting, he knew he had to apply.
By September 1, 2009 the pair had signed a lease for an East Village outpost. "I really liked a lot of the concepts [I saw there]," Holden says of nearby restaurants like Butter Lane and Pommes Frites, which focused solely on baking small cupcakes and making fries, respectively. Holden decided to do the same thing, specializing in buttered, toasted New England-style buns with a helping of wicked good lobster (or crab, or shrimp).
A month later, the tiny shop with eight stools opened to mouth-watering reviews. The $35,000 that Holden and his father had used to bootstrap the company was going to pay off. By April of 2010, father and son were scouting New York's Upper East Side for a second location, and Holden, who had kept his day job while running the company, put in his two weeks notice. For the first time since opening Luke's, he could take a salary.
Spreading the Lobster Love
Over the next few years, Luke's continued to expand, both in size and reputation. (It made last year's 30 Under 30 list of entrepreneurs.) Today it has nearly 300 employees and 12 locations around the East Coast.
While the business has continued evolving, many aspects have remained the same. "Of course we don't know 100 percent of the team, but we don't sit in the office at a desk all week and stay separate from what's going on," Coniff says. "We're in the stores, Luke is in the plant with the people cooking for us. We're intimately involved in every part of it." He credits this hands-on, entrepreneurial mindset with their success.
With dreams of going national and plans to push into the South and North West, Holden and Coniff are confident they can pull it off--without going corporate. "We have a pretty scalable concept, but [the real reason] we've been able to replicate our culture and the standard of customer service is because we just have good, honest, hard-working people," Coniff says. "That's what I think most expanding restaurants have the most difficulty with."
Plus, as Holden said, the seafood business never gets boring. (Spoken like a lifelong fisherman.) "I spend 70 percent of my time in Maine working on sourcing, cooking, packing, and filling all the restaurant's needs and 30 percent around the restaurant group, doing whatever I can to be supportive. I'm in touch with everything, but really I'm spending most of my time up in Maine." Just the way that he likes it.