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Luke Holden is loathe to call himself a chef — “I am no chef” were his first words after he picked up the phone to talk to us — but he inarguably knows a thing or two about how to make a superlative lobster roll. The son of the owner of one of Maine’s most venerable seafood processing plants, Holden grew up lobstering but temporarily abandoned his calling for a career as an investment banker. But the success of Luke’s Lobster, which he opened last year in the East Village, was so resounding that, after deciding to open a second location on the Upper East Side, he quit his job in finance to fully dedicate himself to handling his burgeoning lobster roll empire. Holden spoke with us about many things, including $30 lobster rolls, the allure of the Upper East Side, and Maine pride. Tune in on Monday for part two of our interview.
So how’s your new restaurant coming along?
It’s going well. Everything’s pretty nuts. I spend most of my time on the Upper East Side dealing with contractors and build-out. It’s really fun, but there are certain pieces of it that can not be so much fun.
What’s the least fun?
Probably dealing with Con Edison.
When do you expect to open?
Probably sometime inside of a month. It could be as early as May 15 and as late as the end of May, assuming no big hurdles pop up.
Why’d you guys decide to open your second restaurant on the Upper East Side?
We were talking about all of the different possible markets. You have the West Village, which has Mary’s and Pearl and the Mermaid [Oyster Bar]. Soho has Ed’s Lobster Bar. On the Upper West Side, there’s another Mermaid Inn, and it’s logistically difficult to move from the East Village to the Upper West Side and west side in general. On the Upper East Side, we haven’t found any strong seafood places aside from Flex Mussels. That was part of it. The other part was we’re still a young company and found a place that fit our budget. Also, we could pick up seafood in the Bronx, which makes coordinating the sites a little easier.
You pick up your seafood in the Bronx?
Yes. We order Monday night, it’s packed on Tuesday afternoon, and we pick it up on Wednesday afternoon. From the boat to our restaurant is typically 48 hours.
How much lobster do you go through in a typical day or week?
It’s all over the place: October and November were busy months for us, and in December and January it slowed down. February picked up, and March was better. It’s very seasonal. I don’t really have a good understanding of it because we’re so young. But it’s contingent on the weather, too: If it’s sunny out, we do well, and if it’s not, we look for other tasks to keep the team stimulated.
You’ve got a great downtown following — you sold 500 lobster rolls at last weekend’s Hester Street Fair — but do people on the Upper East Side know who you are?
Right now, not as much. We’ve posted the article from The New York Times on the door, but only a few people will be like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of those guys.” In the East Village, we’ve been very successful with the social media world, but it’s different up here.
You mentioned that you avoided the Upper West Side in part because Mermaid Inn’s already there, but the original Luke’s is right up the block from the East Village Mermaid Inn.
At the end of the day, our lobster roll blows them out of the water, but it’s a totally different concept: You go for a dining experience at the Mermaid Inn, and at ours you go for a high-quality product at good prices. It’s apples and oranges.
When you first moved here, did you check out the city’s lobster rolls?
I grew up in a seafood family, so seeking a $30 lobster roll was never an intention of mine when I moved to the city. It wasn’t until I decided to do this that I went around and visited Pearl and Mary’s — once I did that I realized, ‘Wow, I have to do this.’ The sandwiches are just different — they’re not a Maine lobster roll concept. Most are mayonnaise sandwiches with a little lobster here and there. It’s a different concept — it’s not that one’s better than the other, but this is how I like my lobster roll and how most Mainers like their lobster roll.
Have you always been involved in the lobster business in one way or another?
I grew up on the docks and my father was running a [seafood] processing plant, so I would actually get on the lines and pull the lobsters off the boat and run them through the processing line and sell them to customers. When I was 14, I started lobstering myself. I did that until my sophomore year in college, when my parents said I had to start doing internships.
Why did they want you to do internships?
They didn’t see the correlation between spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year for college and to continue lobstering. It’s what I would love to do when I think about retirement, but it’s really tough work and often not a very rewarding job. The price [of lobster] has stayed pretty stable over past 10 years, but the cost of doing business — like the maintenance costs of keeping a boat — has continued to go up. It’s a really tough industry. There’s a very literal distinction outside of Maine as to what Maine and Canadian lobster is — that’s important. A Maine fishery is so heavily regulated and so much more sustainable than a Canadian fishery that the industries can’t compete head to head. It’s not fair that the price doesn’t reflect that. Prices have dipped but the catch goes up every year because the fisheries are so sustainable.
You’ve been pretty vocal about supporting the industry through your restaurant.
That’s another drive of this concept — we give back to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association on a quarterly basis. Eventually, if we could become a bigger, better company, we’d like to do something more grandiose. We’re promoting a Maine brand right now… there’s other ways we’ve tried to promote it: the soups are from Hurricane Soups, a Maine company that uses my family’s seafood to make bisques and chowders. The breads come from Country Kitchen, and ice cream comes from Gifford’s. It’s just a constant effort to build the Maine brand.