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    Luke Holden's Lifelong Lobster Quest

  • How one man’s craving for a childhood favorite not only led to an international seafood concept, but also blazed a new path in sustainable seafood sourcing.

    Luke’s Lobster
    For Luke Holden, starting a lobster fast casual was almost like going home.

    Luke Holden, founder and CEO of Luke’s Lobster, grew up on the boats, wharves, and processing facilities of the Maine lobster industry. His grandfather was a lobsterman; his father was a lobsterman turned lobster dealer turned lobster processor.

    “That’s an industry that I really came to know and love,” Holden says. But, after graduating from Georgetown University in 2007 with a finance degree, he took a different path than his family’s and headed to Wall Street.

    The lobster coast came calling, however, in 2009 when Holden found himself homesick in the office on a Sunday afternoon. He went on a mission to find something that reminded him of Maine: a lobster roll, of course. But he failed to find a roll that was authentic, affordable, and of the quality he was used to. So he put together a business plan, hired a partner—Ben Conniff, now president—and opened the first shop in New York’s East Village in October 2009. Holden quit his job when the second New York City location opened the following May. Flash-forward to 2018, and Luke’s Lobster boasts 30 U.S. locations and six Japan units with steady growth planned in the international and domestic markets.

    He talked to QSR about seafood sustainability, his quest for the perfect roll, and the company’s global expansion.

    Taste of home

    It starts with the New England–style, top-split bun. Once the rolls are toasted, we put a little slick of mayonnaise on the inside, then we put the quarter pound of fresh meat—lobster, crab, or shrimp—inside the bun and a little lemon butter and our secret seasoning on top.

    The key to serving a high-quality, authentic Maine lobster roll is having a perfectly sourced and cooked meat. I don’t think any of the New York restaurants I tried had the supply chain set up in order to not serve an unadulterated lobster product. If a dealer buys a lobster from a fisherman and a distributor then puts it in a box and ships it to a restaurant, that lobster may be alive, but, by that point in time, it has consumed all of its lipids and proteins, which is really all of its flavor.

    Cutting out the middleman / We work directly with fishermen to buy live lobster, crab, or shrimp. We bring it to our seafood company, Cape Seafood, in Saco, Maine and cook it, then we ship it directly to the restaurants. In most cases, lobster is available fresh nine or 10 months of the year. A couple times a year we flash-freeze it with liquid nitrogen so that there is essentially no discernible difference between a fresh and previously nitrogen-flash-frozen product.

    Global expansion

    We’ve had an exceptional amount of interest to license or franchise the brand. There was a very experienced group that came over from Japan. They asked me, “Can we manage the brand and emulate quality?” We talked about their operations and our ability to supply all of the seafood.

    We were humbled by the challenge of going to Japan, which has one of the most strict cultures on seafood quality. We figured, if we could build a loyal guest in Japan, then we could do it anywhere in the world. It was starting with the biggest challenge and seeing if we could make it work. It certainly did. They have been extremely successful over there. They buy all their seafood from our seafood company, the nitrogen-flash-frozen product.

    Next, we plan to open in Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwan is another country that cares about high-quality seafood. We’ve seen a plethora of lobster roll concepts open in Taipei and ultimately not be all that successful because their price point is too high and their quality is poor. We’re hoping to solve that opportunity for the market.

    Textbook in action

    Stakeholder theory is the concept of treating everyone in the relationship chain as a partner. In our business, we look at paying fishermen a fair price and helping them build better businesses at the shore level. We look at our teammates and try to give them the best working environment and pay.

    Then, with our guests, we look to treat them with the most hospitable Maine dining experience that we can. It’s about treating everybody with the mindset of having long-term relationships versus making short-term decisions.