SOUTH PORTLAND — For Luke Holden, building an international chain of 43 lobster restaurants all began with hunger, homesickness and a Google search.
In less than a decade Luke’s Lobster has grown from one, seven-seat lobster shack in Manhattan’s East Village to a global restaurant and wholesale lobster business. Next summer, it will open its second restaurant in Maine – the largest yet – on the Portland waterfront.
The Portland Pier eatery will be linked to an adjacent lobster pound at the former New Meadows Lobster, which Holden purchased in July.
At the Loveitts Field home where he lives with his wife Laisee and their 8-month-old daughter, Poppy, Holden, 34, recently recalled how it all began.
It was 2009, just a couple years after he graduated from Georgetown University with an undergraduate degree in business. Holden, an investment banker on Wall Street, was sitting in his office on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon.
But he missed his home, so he began to search online for the nearest lobster roll. It didn’t take long for him to recognize a gap in the market — all the lobster rolls in New York, he said, were either overpriced, over-spiced, or both.
About three months later, Holden and his business partner, freelance food writer Ben Conniff, with whom he connected on Craigslist, opened their “220-something-square-foot” lobster shack in the East Village.
Having grown up in Cape Elizabeth with a father who was a lobsterman-turned- lobster-dealer-turned-lobster-processor, Holden knew a thing or two about the industry.
“My father worked on the waterfront his entire life,” Holden said. “I grew up on the docks.”
Still, he and Conniff worked with a budget of only $30,000 their first year in business. They had a small, but loyal crew of employees. They kept it simple and devoted their business to offering the highest quality at the lowest price – $14. Today, the lobster rolls sell for only $2 more.
“I think our simplistic, naive approach turned out to be one of our greatest assets,” Holden said.
Even so, there was a recession going on, and the risk of failure was high, so Holden kept his corporate job until the lobster business grew enough to demand his undivided attention.
And grow it did.
Today, Holden oversees 30 shacks in the U.S., along with a few in Japan and Taiwan.
He said many of the employees who were with him at the beginning are still part of the team. Conniff is the chief marketing officer and Holden’s brothers, Mike and Bryan, are both partners, responsible for finding new restaurants, negotiating deals, building out space and finding the teams to keep the new establishments running.
“I always say I run the business and they grow it,” Holden said.
Holden said Luke’s Lobster plans to continue to expand internationally and domestically, and he’s comfortable opening five to eight new restaurants per year.
For now, he’s focusing on “step No. 1,” which is a complete redevelopment of what Holden described as a “failing commercial dock” at 60 Portland Pier.
He said the company has invested around $1 million in the past six months to rebuild the “commercial component” of the pier that will support the 150-seat restaurant. They’ve also enlarged and renewed the pier’s floats to create additional, and safer, real estate for local lobster and fishermen, which Holden said “has nothing to do with the restaurant.”
Although he’s traveled far and wide for his business, to Holden there’s no place like home. Laisee Holden, who attended the University of North Carolina and then moved to Los Angeles, California, for a sports marketing job, agreed.
“No matter where we went, we always got drawn back to Maine,” she said.
Holden grew up playing ice hockey with Laisee. She was a year older at Cape Elizabeth High School, but Holden admitted he always had a crush on her. So much so that when Laisee’s mother asked Holden to drive Laisee and her date to their junior prom for $20, he obliged.
The two reconnected about four years ago after they’d both moved back to the area. They purchased their current home, a more-than-century-old oceanfront estate facing Danforth Cove and Cushing Island, just over a year ago.
“I always hoped to move back eventually,” Laisee said. “It’s the people in Maine that make it so special. … They like to support each other. I notice that a lot with Luke’s business,” through which, she added, she feels a lot more “connected” with the community.
Holden, too, said he “loves being part of the fishing community,” something he and his father always had in common.
“It’s so special that Luke gets to live and work near his family,” Laisee said. “… He and I had such great experiences going to school here and playing sports, so hopefully Poppy will, too.”
Luke’s Lobster founder Luke Holden, right, his wife Laisee and their daughter Poppy at their South Portland home. Holden next year plans to open the company’s second restaurant in Maine on the Portland waterfront.
Poppy Holden has traveled far and wide for an 8-month-old. She even went to Japan for a Luke’s Lobster opening earlier this year.