When Luke Holden opened the first location of Luke’s Lobster in Manhattan’s East Village in 2009, he was still employed full-time at Cohen & Steers investment bank.
"I was looking for something outside of banking—a lot of my friends were getting bounced between jobs, and the question soon became: why is everyone in New York f*****g up a lobster roll so badly?"
Luke, who graduated from Georgetown University in 2007, decided to take it upon himself to fill the void. He partnered with his father, Jeff Holden, to begin crafting the company.
The senior Holden owns Portland Shellfish Company, which specializes in shipping fresh and frozen seafood from Maine, and is the source of all seafood at Luke’s locations.
Growing up in Cape Elizabeth, Me., Luke and his brother Bryan helped out with their father’s company, and spent many summers lobstering. Bryan graduated from Bowdoin in 2009 and now manages the franchise’s D.C. locations.
"I started working with my dad when I was nine years old at the processing plant, and did that till sophomore year," said Bryan. "Maine itself is such a great place to grow up, working with my dad and on the lobster boats. To work in the industry growing up was really cool."
Memorabilia from Luke’s lobstering days decorate the Upper West Side store, where I met him for a lobster roll this summer. The guiding mission behind Luke’s Lobster is to bring "the taste of Maine" to more urbane locales—the franchise now has eight locations in New York and Washington, D.C., plus a food truck named the "Nauti mobile."
"Every store is a little different," said Bryan. But each location is distinctly "Maine," furnished with tables and chairs from Deadhead Lumber, a carpentry company based in Northern Maine that carves sunken logs from the state’s lakes and rivers.
Yellow and blue buoys from skiffs that Luke built himself in high school flank the shop’s chalkboard menu, across from a mural of a Maine harbor by Cullen Winkler ’09, who played lacrosse with Bryan at Bowdoin.
"That’s driftwood from the beach I used to fish at," said Luke, pointing toward old wooden relics propped up against the seating area. The walls are covered with autographed "Mobster cards," stamped cards for regulars who bought ten lobster rolls and got a free one in return.
"All of our restaurants are decked out like that," said Luke.
Everything sold at Luke’s Lobster is from Maine: aside from the buns and the seafood, which are delivered in shipments from Maine four times a week, Maine Root sodas, Maine microbrews, and Hurricane’s Soups, of Greene, Me., are all on the menu.
"We have a processing plant up there, making sure that product is coming to us," said Bryan. "We’ve grown so much recently that from the first one to two shops to now nine, it’s changed our operations up north recently."
The Holdens have gone to great lengths to capture the feel of Cape Elizabeth in the city, and Mainers are well-represented among the staff of Luke’s Lobster. The general manager of the Plaza Food Hall location went to high school with Luke, as did the director of mid-atlantic operations. Of the 150 Luke’s employees between D.C. and New York, about a dozen are from Cape Elizabeth.
"Everyone started at a $10/hour position," said Luke. "Everything is a personal relationship."
The same goes for the food.
"It’s about the lobster...when times were tough, that’s what dad brought home," said Luke. "The recipe hasn’t changed since day one."
He called his best-selling product "pretty traditional." Each lobster roll ($15) is served with mayonnaise, celery salt, lemon, and spices on a New England top-split bun.
"There are only a few ways to make a Maine lobster roll," said Bryan. "Once we had the lobster lined up it was just a matter of finding the right roll."
The newest location opened in Georgetown this summer, and business is growing. But as with all entrepreneurial endeavors, success was hardly guaranteed at the start.
"I never really thought I would be leaving my banking job," said Luke. "I didn’t quit banking till we opened up the second store on the Upper East Side."
Bryan was finishing his senior year at Bowdoin at the time, when Luke was breaking ground in New York. His post-grad plans did not include joining the family business.
"It was something we talked about," he said. "I got an offer to work for IBM early in my senior year, worked for them for one and a half years and then I moved."
Bryan joined the company just as it was starting to expand.
"It’s a lot of fun working with your family and friends," he said. "It’s a lot more rewarding, and it’s been [very] different than working for a company like IBM."
Bryan now travels between D.C., New York, and Maine doing business for Luke’s.
"In any given week I can be in three cities," he said. "It’s fun, but it’s pretty crazy."
"There is no typical day, there is no turning it off," said Luke. "But nobody is ever going to be my boss."
The company has steadily expanded over the past few years and Luke said his immediate goals are to reach Boston and Philadelphia. The long-term plan is to see Luke’s outposts in San Francisco, Chicago, and L.A.
"We wont expand the shop unless we’re sure of two things: one, that we have a backlog of great employees ready to move to a new shop, and two, supply," said Bryan. "If we’re not sure if we [can] get enough resources from Maine, then we won’t grow."
As for whether there will ever be a Luke’s Lobster in Maine, Luke said that if that were to happen, he envisions more of a "lobster campus," complete with boats and a distillery.
Both Holdens cited a handful of not-to-miss lobster rolls in Maine, though Luke will only try another roll if he can opt out of the mayonnaise. "If not, I’ll go for the other stuff," he said.
"Red’s Eats is great, and the Clam Shack in Kennebunk," said Bryan. For Luke, Five Islands Lobster Co. in Georgetown, Me. and The Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth are favorites.