Inside Luke's Lobster With Its President Ben Conniff
Being a huge fan of all things Luke's Lobster, I had to take my obsession to the next level! Having met co-founder Ben Conniff a handful of times over the past few years, and hearing about all of the amazing things he has done and has plans to do, I knew I had to share his story. In no uncertain circumstances do I think I can tell the story better than Ben, so I won't. Instead, let's hear, well, read, it from straight from the source!
MW. When did Luke’s Lobster go from an idea to a reality?
BC. My business partner Luke Holden came up with the idea for Luke's Lobster while working as an investment banker in Manhattan. Born and raised in Maine, Luke missed the simple, tasty lobster rolls of his youth while living in the city. The only lobster rolls he could find in New York were very expensive ($30+) and drowning in mayo and other filler, masking the sweet lobster taste. He saw an opportunity to bring a classic Maine-style roll to New Yorkers at a fair price.
Luke put an ad on Craigslist for a partner and I (along with hundreds of others) answered it. I came on to help with the day-to-day management of the business, as Luke was still working full-time at his banking job. I had previously been working as a freelance food journalist, having written for Saveur, GQ, Tasting Table and others.
Within just 30 days of signing the lease on our first shack in the East Village, we were open for business. I credit sheer force of will and great advice from friends and neighbors, as we truly had no idea what we were doing. We took a lot of risks and adapted as we went along.
MW. What were some of the most exciting milestones during the opening of the first location?
BC. There were countless roadblocks in our way - including the Byzantine Department of Buildings permit process, health department licensing, and another red tape that often takes months (or lots of money) to procure. Opening a restaurant in New York is not for the faint of heart. Overcoming each hurdle, often thanks to very early mornings and very late nights, was exhilarating.
Getting our first team in place was also incredibly satisfying. I was extremely selective and did countless interviews to build an opening team of about 8 (not enough). We had an orientation and practice meeting the night before we opened where we admitted to how little we know, and how much we'd depend on one another to get through the opening weeks successfully. Of those first hires, two are still with us in company leadership positions today, and others are incredibly close friends.
The most rewarding early moments, though, were watching our first customers come back again and again to eat our food. The early buzz was uniformly positive and our neighbors in the East Village were very supportive and forgiving of any initial stumbles.
MW. Looking back, what was the smartest move you made in building Luke’s Lobster as a company?
BC. Hiring from within and staying true to our company culture. One of the most important reasons we've been successful is the fact that we have such a tight-knit, homegrown staff. Our head of design, for example, started working the line in one of our shacks. We noticed his amazing drawings on the bathroom wall and realized we had a more fitting job for him to do.
MW. Looking back, what would you change?
BC. Very little. There are some things we've done, like standardizing our training program, that once they were in place I couldn't believe we didn't do it earlier. But that's the essence of being a small, growing business; you prioritize the things you have to to get to the next day, and you make improvements incrementally. I'm proud of what we've built and am focused on the present and future.
MW. I know that sourcing your ingredients sustainably is incredibly important to you, can you elaborate as to why?
BC. Sustainable sourcing makes sense on every level: economic, environmental, and social. Adhering to sustainability guidelines and sustainable fishery management techniques helps us ensure that the lobster, crab, shrimp, and clam populations we rely on for our food and livelihoods remain healthy and robust for generations to come.
It also helps to safeguard the livelihoods of the fishermen with whom we work and the economies and culture of the local fishing communities with whom we’re involved. We've taken this even one step further at our newest lobster shack, Luke's at Tenants Harbor in Tenants Harbor, Maine, which is linked to the Tenants Harbor Fisherman's Co-Op, which we helped found. We purchase 100% of the organization's catch and serve it in Maine and across the country at our other shacks. The fisherman involved in the co-op also receive a cut of the Luke's at Tenants Harbor profits.
MW. You support a lot of Maine-based businesses. Can you name a few?
BC. We work very closely with Green Bee Craft Beverages in Brunswick, ME—they make our Luke’s Blueberry Lemonade (a best seller). We also source other beverages from Maine Root in Portland, ME, our wild blueberries from Josh Pond in Whiting, ME, beer from Allagash, Peak Organic, Shipyard, and other local microbreweries, and our chowder and bisque come from Hurricane Soups in Greene, ME.
MW. Does the changing of seasons, or perhaps sustainability cause you to ever have to look outside of Maine for ingredients?
BC. Yes, sustainable sourcing is of utmost importance to us and we do source beyond Maine when we need to.
While we source most of our lobster from Maine, we source some of our lobster and all of our shrimp from Canada--the Maine shrimp fishery was closed to allow the population to rebuild, and the lobster seasons fluctuate such that the Maine population gets a relative break from fishing pressure when the Canadian fishery is busiest; some of the Jonah crab used in our crab rolls comes from Massachusetts or Rhode Island, as do the sea clams used in our chowder. Regardless of where our seafood comes from, it's all 100% sustainable, and sustainability always trumps state borders in our decision making.
MW. How often do you visit the Maine and speak with your fishermen partners?
BC. I'm based in New York, but travel to Maine often to visit Luke's at Tenants Harbor, Cape Seafood, our Maine purveyors and our fishermen partners. Luke actually spends more than 50% of the year there - he sits on the boards of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, The Lobster Institute and the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op and speaks with fishermen daily.
MW. What makes your lobster rolls the best lobster rolls?
BC. It all comes back to the quality of the lobster.
All the lobster meat served in our shacks is steamed at the source in Maine. To ensure our customers receive the freshest, most delicious lobster meat, our team cleans, steams, and packs our lobster as soon as it hit the dock in Maine and ships the meat straight to our shacks. This allows us to go light on the mayo and butter and add no extra filler to allow the quality and flavor of our lobster to shine through in each roll.
MW. From beginning to end, what goes into making a Luke’s Lobster lobster roll (start as far back as you’d like)?
BC. In Maine, we size grade every knuckle, claw, and tail and cook them to exact time and temperature specs based on their size, so every bite is perfectly sweet and tender. In the restaurant, we start with 1/4 pound of fresh-steamed lobster meat. We brush the outside of a split-top Maine-style bun with butter, toast it to a golden-brown color, then spread a touch of mayo on the inside of the bun. We add the lobster meat, drizzle melted butter and lemon juice over the lobster, and finish with a dash of seasoning made from our house mixture. We keep it simple to focus on the freshness of the lobster.
MW. What is the best-sized lobster for a lobster roll?
BC. Maine has minimum and maximum size restrictions for lobsters that can be caught, so the most important thing is that the lobsters we catch and serve fit between these indices. Beyond that, the method of preparation matters much more to the quality the roll and the topics we use than does the size of the lobster.
MW. What is your favorite meal at Luke’s Lobster?
BC. It depends on the season. I'm always about our lobster roll - it's a classic and I've yet to grow tired of it. But the shrimp roll is also a sleeper hit, just as tasty as the lobster at a super affordable price. I'm also currently enjoying our seasonal Wild Blue Salad, which features lightly pickled wild Maine blueberries from Josh Pond, way up in Whiting, ME.