Bringing Lobster to the Fast Casual Masses
The premium, shellfish-centric menu at Luke's Lobster easily puts it in the elite fast casual 2.0 category, but the brand's origin story is even more compelling. Maine native Luke Holden was working as an investment banker in New York City when the subpar quality and high prices of local lobster rolls inspired him to disrupt the market. Holden tapped into his contacts within the tight-knit community of fishermen in Maine; his father used to own a shellfish-processing plant, and Holden himself had spent childhood summers lobstering.
He teamed up with food writer Ben Conniff, and the two opened the first Luke’s location in Manhattan’s East Village in 2009. Now the company has 21 stores across New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Maine, and Las Vegas, and another domestic location set to open this spring, with six additional units in Japan. The brand’s rapid expansion has led it to double down on its supply chain, ensuring not only that the quality remains top-notch, but also that its relationships with lobstermen deepens over time.
“Our growth is absolutely dependent on our ability to continue to blossom those connections with the rest of the seafood industry. … Every aspect of the supply chain is critical,” says Conniff, who now serves as the brand’s president. “It was 2012 when we decided that if we were going to continue to grow or even speed the pace of our growth, we needed a seafood company of our own in Maine.”
Enter Cape Seafood, a sustainable seafood processing facility in Saco, Maine, where the lobsters are handpicked, cleaned, steamed, and packaged for all locations. Conniff says no machine can do what a skilled lobster picker can, and thanks to this quality control, Cape Seafood is now the sole supplier for all Luke’s Lobster locations.
The brand continues to adjust as it grows. As an example, tiny spaces with limited seating work well in New York City, where patrons are accustomed to tight quarters and often take their meals to go. Conniff says guest feedback has helped the team rethink factors like size and parking availability in markets beyond the Big Apple. He adds that at least in the immediate future, the focus will be on saturating existing markets before seeking out new ones.
Last spring, Luke’s was also instrumental in establishing a fishing co-op at Tenants Harbor, a storied wharf about 90 miles north of Portland, Maine. The company installed its own operation at the struggling seafood shack on the wharf, with half of its proceeds going back into the co-op. Luke’s Lobster also buys 100 percent of the co-op’s catch—a heartening guarantee for fishermen who are often unsure whether they’ll be able to sell their catches.
Conniff says the commitment is especially profound in seafood, given that the industry has not always enjoyed a sterling reputation, with incidents of fraud and corruption peppering its past. It’s still the case in many foreign markets, but the tide is changing in the U.S.
“We’re able to tell the guest when they walk in the door and when they walk away with a lobster roll exactly where that lobster came from,” Conniff says. “A good chunk of money that you spent on that lobster roll is going back to that sustainably managed fishery in that small, rural community.”