First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012
In 2009 Luke’s Lobster opened its doors to the public in New York City’s East Village. “We started with ten folks on the team,” said owner and president, Luke Holden. Now, just three years later, Luke’s Lobster employs between 130 and 140 people and operates at six locations in New York City and Washington, D.C., with plans to open three new locations this summer. What’s the secret to this success? “It all starts with the quality of the product. Then you can heighten it with a story,” Holden explained.
The story that accompanies Luke’s Lobster’s lobster roll is one that Holden knows well. Holden grew up in Cape Elizabeth and lobstered from a hand built skiff through high school with the blue and yellow buoys now found at Luke’s Lobster. Holden left Maine to attend Georgetown University to study finance and management, but never lost his passion for the Maine brand. While working for a bank in New York City after graduating from Georgetown, Holden became discouraged with the high prices and low quality of lobster rolls around the city. Before long, Holden partnered with his dad, Jeff Holden, who owns Portland Shellfish, a seafood processing plant in Portland and later, business partner Ben Conniff, to open their first of many lobster roll shops in the East Village.
Holden said the lobster roll is “the star of the show” and accounts for 50%-65% of their sales. All of the lobster meat used in the rolls comes from Maine lobstermen and is processed at Portland Shellfish. “We only source from the highest quality. I’ve been to other processing plants and found that Portland Shellfish delivers supreme quality,” Holden said.
Luke’s also sells Maine crab and shrimp rolls, but finds that the sustainability of the Maine lobster fishery is easier to align to the Maine name. “Customers want to know what’s so special about Maine lobster over lobster from other places,” Holden said. “We tell them about the work Maine lobstermen and the Department of Marine Resources do to maintain a sustainable fishery. It’s stricter in Maine than in other states, but they have a good balance between too much regulation and not enough.” Holden said they take time to make sure everyone on the Luke’s Lobster team knows about the management and regulations in place for the Maine lobster fishery. “When our team knows and cares about it, so do our customers. They can value that and learn from it,” he said.
To encourage customers to learn about how lobsters are caught, each Luke’s location has lobster gear on display. “The colors [in the shops] are the same yellow and blue as my old buoys when I used to fish,” said Holden. “Some of my old traps and buoys are on display as well as other gear and tools. We really like to have the sustainability tools for people to see, like the notcher, gauge, and vents.” Holden said the goal is to give customers a “downeast feel in the downtown hustle. We want to share a piece of Maine with them.” People who either have vacationed in or lived in Maine know that it is a special place. “When you think about Maine you think of beautiful summer days, lobsters, wilderness. We do our best to align ourselves with that image,” Holden said.
At Luke’s Lobster, all the products for sale are from Maine. “Our chowders and bisques are from Hurricane’s Soups, the buns we use for the rolls are from Country Kitchen, we have microbrews from Allagash, Peak Organic, Geary’s, Atlantic Brewing Company, Maine Beer Company and we stock Maine Root soda,” Holden explained. Each location also has murals depicting life in Maine created by a Maine artist.
“We’ve grown really fast, but it’s been fun,” said Holden. What makes their quick growth even more astounding is the company’s advertising strategy. “We don’t really advertise. We’ve spent no money on official ads,” Holden said. Instead, Holden and his team have taken advantage of free social media to get the company’s name out. You can find Luke’s Lobster on almost every social media outlet available, including Facebook, Twitter, Four Square, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Vimeo, and Yelp. These outlets keep customers engaged in the world of Luke’s Lobster and all things Maine and are an easy way to attract new customers. Holden has also introduced Luke’s Maine lobster roll to Japan when he traveled to Yokohama to participate in a New York food fair this spring.
While Luke’s Lobster has been growing rapidly with great success, Holden himself has not forgotten roots here in Maine. Luke’s Lobster was the first business to invest in MLA’s Claws for a Cause initiative where participating businesses donate a portion of their proceeds from a specific event or over the course of a year to the organization. For the past three years, Luke’s contributions have helped to fund MLA general operating costs, the launch of MLA’s interactive blog for news and commentary website, Maine Landings (www. mainelandings.org); and last year’s contribution is being directed to the development of an innovative leadership training program for the industry.
So what’s next for this young, growing company? “We are opening up in the Plaza Hotel in late May and in Maryland in early June. We’re also working on opening a place in a city that’s new for us, hopefully this summer,” said Holden. “We want to create relationships, and make them more prominent, with the lobstermen that provide us with our lobsters.”
Holden said that traceability is very important to consumers coupled with a trend in healthy eating and social responsibility that he hopes to promote. Luke’s Web site provides information about the harbors that supply the lobsters and information about Maine’s regulations. “We care most about promoting the Maine brand,” Holden said. And if you read comments on any of Luke’s Lobster’s social media sites from customers, it certainly sounds like people are enjoying a piece of Maine in the city.