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Updated: July 29, 2019 CEO Interview

Q&A: Luke’s Lobster’s global expansion comes home to Maine

Photo / Tim Greenway Ben Conniff, left, and Luke Holden, co-founders of Luke’s Lobster, in the upstairs bar at their new restaurant on Portland’s waterfront.

Luke’s Lobster was founded by Luke Holden and Ben Conniff in 2009, when they opened their first eatery in Manhattan’s East Village. They’ve grown to 28 locations in the United States, including their newest one in Portland, as well as nine in Japan and one in Taiwan. Luke’s Lobster Seafood Co. is the primary supplier of traceable, sustainable seafood to all Luke’s Lobster locations while also supplying seafood restaurants around the country. Holden, the company’s CEO and a Cape Elizabeth native, and Conniff, who serves as chief marketing officer, spoke with Mainebiz about building the brand and expansion plans.

Mainebiz: How important is a larger Maine presence to the Luke’s Lobster brand?

Ben Conniff: Having a larger presence in Maine is huge for our brand. Our story began here with Luke’s family and personal history as a lobsterman. Transparent sourcing direct from fishermen, and delivering the experience of a Maine dockside shack, have always been paramount for us. So having more opportunities to bring our guests, partners and media to a working Maine dock and see everything below the tip of the iceberg of our business is so helpful in communicating what we’re about to the world. Not to mention how great it feels personally to get such a warm welcome home from our friends and neighbors.

This was the chance we had been waiting for to come home in a way that had a greater impact than just a restaurant.

— Luke Holden

MB: Why come to Portland now amid the ongoing debate over waterfront development?

Luke Holden: The lobster industry faces so many challenges these days and we’ve tried to do our part to contribute in many facets, from diversifying domestic markets in the midst of tariff issues, to working on alternative bait to supplement the shrinking herring quota. The opportunity presented itself to rehabilitate a dock that could support a dozen fishermen and buy from many more, were it not suffering from years of decay and generally unsafe conditions. By opening a shack at the end of Portland Pier, we were able to create a business model that could finance new pilings and decking for the whole wharf, brand new double-wide floats for the lobstermen to do their work, electricity and running water for every berth, all without increasing costs for the lobstermen. That and create a wonderful showcase for locals and tourists to see and learn about the industry. This was the chance we had been waiting for to come home in a way that had a greater impact than just a restaurant.

Photo / Tim Greenway
The outdoor deck at Luke’s.

MB: In Tokyo you’re known as a New York rather than a Maine brand. Do you see this changing with a larger presence on your home turf?

BC: We have always tried to present ourselves to our Japanese audience as a Maine brand selling Maine seafood. The challenge we hit was that no one in Japan knew what Maine was, and they’re all interested in trends and happenings in New York. So often our team there will fall back on the New York parts of our story because it’s a place their guests are familiar with. We think the combination of a Luke’s destination in Maine that’s easy for international tourists to visit, along with us continuing to encourage a culture of knowing where your food came from and how it got to your plate, will lead to a more recognizable brand for Maine over time.

Mainebiz: Having recently achieved certified B Corp status, what’s your advice to other companies thinking of doing the same?

BC: Do it! Going through the rigorous B Corp certification helps you celebrate things you do really well, shore up things you’ve been doing but haven’t formalized yet, and also create a road map for improving parts of your business where you could do better by the planet or society. Once you start truly measuring your impact, you can set goals to get better and better every year. We believe that every company should be in the business of doing good, not just making money, and B Corp is a great way to verify that and then do more. If you’re planning to do it, my biggest piece of advice is to start to organize the paperwork underlying your business and think about turning “the way you do things” into actual written policies. This will be necessary to prove out the good that you say you do, and ultimately will be good to enshrine your mission to keep you from swerving when times get tough.

Photo / Tim Greenway
The downstairs dining area at Luke’s Lobster in Portland.

MB: What are your medium- to long-term hiring plans for Maine?

LH: It was an amazing feeling to add 100 people to our Maine team when we opened Portland Pier. Between there, Luke’s at Tenants Harbor and especially our seafood company in Saco, we now have close to 300 teammates in Maine. We always want to continue to grow, and we are looking at investments to increase our seafood production capacity to meet our domestic and international demand. This will result in more and more jobs in the plant and throughout our supply chain. Our restaurant group’s greater presence here is also leading to a second nucleus of restaurant operations in Maine where we will continue to build a team. We’re about to hire a catering coordinator and an events manager here, for instance. Long term, we envision continued growth and jobs to drive the engine which supports the whole company as we grow throughout the U.S. and into new international markets. If the city of Portland or state of Maine would help financially support it, we would also consider relocating our headquarters from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Maine … Just saying.

MB: What effect do international trade disruptions have on your business and how are you dealing with it?

LH: We haven’t historically sold to China, so the worst parts of the trade war have not directly affected us yet. However, everyone that we do sell to outside the U.S., from Japan to the EU, is reconsidering the business they do with the U.S. The lobster industry as a whole is ultimately going to suffer long term effects of losing such a strong source of demand in the marketplace, and nothing that’s bad for the fishermen is good for us. Because we have little control over government trade policy, our answer is to do everything we can to grow and diversify demand for lobster domestically. That’s led us to introducing new products to the Whole Foods freezer aisle and expanding our retail partners, as well as continuing to eye expansion for our shacks and diversify our own model, using Portland Pier as a test kitchen for new menu items.

Photo / Tim Greenway
A lobster roll at Luke’s Lobster on the Portland Pier

MB: After the summer focus on your newest location, what’s next and what markets pose the greatest potential interest?

BC: For our restaurant group, we are all consumed with making Portland Pier perfect now. But ultimately when we turn back to finding new locations, we feel great about the reception we got in San Francisco when we opened last year. We’d like to grow that market and also look at new cities along the West Coast, where there are a lot of seafood lovers but barely any lobster to be found. We also want to continue to expand internationally, be it existing and new markets in Asia or potentially Europe. We’ll be doing plenty of R&D at home in our Portland shack for new menu items or facets of our restaurant business that will help us appeal to these new markets.

LH: We also see our company’s growth going far beyond increasing our number of shacks. We are expanding our branded retail program rapidly and supplying not just Whole Foods but respected regional grocers and online outlets. It’s important to us that we continue to find diverse ways to bring lobster to market, and every new shelf we find ourselves on helps us grow the Luke’s brand and the brand of Maine lobster as a whole. Ultimately we also see this retail program expanding to include jonah crab and other catch from our fishermen partners.

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