They first met in a Starbucks, and four years later, the two have a company that pulled in more than $8 million in revenue last year
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“When we opened a little shack in 2009, we didn’t expect this,” said 28-year Ben Conniff, one part of the pair that is the engine behind the very successful Luke’s Lobster.
Conniff, a former food writer, may be considered the lesser-known of the two co-founders. The business bears the name of his partner, 29-year-old Luke Holden.
“Obviously Luke and I both work incredibly hard and so do our other partners, Scott and Bryan,” said Conniff. “But the fact is this was Luke's idea. Luke is the lobsterman, and Luke one who conceived of it all.”
Holden first thought of the idea when he was still working as an investment banker in New York City.
“I realized there was no high-quality, traditional Maine lobster rolls in the city,” explained Holden, who grew up in Maine. "So after poking around trying to ask those hard questions like why something like this didn’t exist, I put a posting on Craigslist looking for a partner to help me put together the half-baked plan that I had put together.”
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Conniff answered the ad -- and after getting the approval from Holden's father (who himself had decades of experience as a lobsterman and played an integral part in connecting them to local fishers and processors), the two began work on their first location in New York’s East Village.
Today, Luke’s Lobster has eleven locations in New York, D.C. and Philadelphia and recently opened a 16,000-square-foot lobster-processing facility in Maine to keep up with the fast rate of expansion. Conniff attributes the pair’s exceptional success to long hours, high quality, its price point ($15 dollars for a lobster roll) and the honest storyline behind Luke’s Lobster.
“I think most entrepreneurs give short shrift to their personal stories, to the reasons why they are doing what they are doing in the first place and to how much of an effect it can have on their business, whether it’s a restaurant or an insurance company,” said Conniff. “People are much more excited about patronizing a business when they have a sense of who is running it and why they are doing it.”
Q&A with Luke Holden and Ben Conniff
What is your favorite quote and why?
Luke: I’m a big fan of [former Green Bay Packers] Coach Lombardi. Dedication to fostering a team- first environment and promoting hard work are keys to success in small business. Below are couple of his quotes.
“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”
“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”
Ben: I don't really have one. I'm not much of a quoter.
How do you differentiate yourself from the competition?
Ben: The quality of our seafood. We trace it from its sustainable Maine source and handle it every step of the way, from cooking to picking to packing to shipping to storing. Our extensive background has taught us how to do it exactly right 100% of the time, so there's no better lobster available than ours. Round that out with Luke's authentic Maine story and background as an actual lobsterman, and we have credibility that no one else does.
What is the most important piece of advice for entrepreneurs starting out?
Luke: Build a network of people that care about you and use it. Don't be shy, reach out to those that may be of help and attempt to create a relationship. You have nothing to lose, and my experience has been that people are generally very interested in helping someone with the right attitude and motivation. And always write thank-you notes!
Ben: Be prepared to have a lot of patience. You come to realize that the things that are critical to your business are unimportant to a bureaucrat at a desk, that you are just one stop of twenty in a day on your butter vendor's truck, that you are just one little property in your landlord's real estate portfolio. You need to be mentally prepared for everything to take more time than you think it should.
What is the biggest mistake you think you’ve made in starting up?
Luke: Underestimating the time and cost associated with simply being compliant. Whether that’s with the department of buildings, department of health, local/state/federal taxes, payroll taxes and wage reporting, human resource laws, workers comp, insurance, contracts, etc. It’s all very confusing and often those administering regulation are not readily available or helpful. It’s shame that it’s all as cumbersome as it is.
Ben: Not defining our own roles early enough as we started to grow. We manage the business with two other partners, Bryan and Scott, and there was a time when the four of us were stepping on each others’ toes, doing redundant work and worrying about the same things when we should have split up duties clearly and made better use of each of our time and energy. We've gotten better at this, but not perfect.
Is starting a restaurant as hard as everyone says it is?
Ben: Yes. That's coming from someone whose restaurant has a tiny menu, no cooking on site, and no complicated recipe. We may not go through those trials every day, but our reliance on the quality of our ingredients rather than our recipes just means we spend far more time on the perfect handling of those ingredients, and it is extremely difficult.
An influx of lobster this summer – but did it really drive down your prices?
Ben: Our prices are higher than ever. The economics of the lobster industry are extremely complex. Briefly, the vast majority of lobsters are too weak to be sold live and are cooked by processors instead. That's how we cook our lobster, in our own company. The knuckles and claws go into our rolls, and the tails are sold to other businesses, usually luxury restaurants and hotels. When the price of tails dropped due to the economy, the price of knuckle and claw meat skyrocketed. The regular fluctuations in supply and price only make our side of the business more difficult and unpredictable, and lower boat prices don't make up for how costly the business has become.