By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
At a time when fast food restaurants are struggling to keep up with the demands of better food quality, improved working conditions, and higher pay and benefits, there are a few shining examples of the way it should be done in the fast-casual sector.
Take a look at Luke’s Lobster.
When Luke Holden left college in 2007, he entered into the world of investment banking, but his Maine fishing roots grew too strong to keep him there. That, and the fact that he couldn’t find a decent lobster roll that resembled anything like those he grew up eating, provided the inspiration he needed to take his career on a very different path.
Holden became passionate about getting higher quality lobster to consumers at a more affordable price through direct connection with lobstermen and through the lobster processing business. So he created a business plan and, in 2009, put out a Craigslist ad for a partner.
Ben Conniff, now Luke’s Vice President, answered the ad. Conniff, a Yale grad, was working as a freelance writer – often writing about and nurturing his own passion with food.
“I found that I wanted to quit writing and cook all the time. That’s when I started looking at jobs in the food industry,” says Conniff.
Although Conniff had no foodservice background, his chops in the kitchen combined with his writing and marketing background made him a good fit. The rest, as they say, is history – and the result of hard work, a good business plan, and a great product.
The Food Philosophy
Mention “lobster roll” and images of tiny pieces of lobster smothered in mayonnaise on a huge bun, along with an exorbitant price, come to mind. Not so at Luke’s.
Enter the door and the first thing you smell is butter. Glance around the room at the small tables, and you quickly see that lobster is definitely the star here. “The issue with a lot of lobster rolls is that it’s not about the lobster. They basically fill you up with everything that’s not lobster and excess calories that we think are unnecessary,” says Conniff. “For us, it’s about simplicity and celebrating the ingredients. We serve lobster with a crispy, buttery bun, with a little lemon butter and mayo to accent it.”
While a typical fast-casual price point caps at about $13 per receipt, a meal at Luke’s can put you a few bucks above that. Holden feels Luke’s is still accessible to everyone. “We’re not going to take shortcuts and sacrifice quality at the restaurant level. We care about value throughout the entire chain of custody,” he says.
Director of New York Operations Emily Feldman says that Luke’s has “retained its small business mentality” in spite of its rapid growth. And the company’s “community first” philosophy extends beyond the Maine fisherman to small businesses wherever you find a Luke’s. In each city, they partner and collaborate with local, small-batch producers for a few menu items such as dessert from Chicago’s Bang Bang Pie.
The inspiration for Luke’s strong sustainability philosophy is the Maine lobster industry, which “started putting practices in place back in the 1980s, long before sustainability became a buzzword,” Conniff says. The lobster industry is a sustainable fishery with very specific regulations about the methods and time of day/year one can take lobster, along with the number, sex, and size of the lobsters that can be taken.
“It’s one of the most sustainable fisheries you can draw from, and this has been a guiding principle at Luke’s. For us, it’s about promoting sustainable seafood. On the consumer end, it’s about traceability and encouraging people to ask, ‘Where does this come from? How is it harvested?’ We want to make sure we’re not depleting natural resources that we rely on, and future generations rely on.”
The chalkboard at Luke’s tells you exactly where the day’s lobster comes from and all of the teammates are trained to talk about its sustainability practices. “At this moment, it’s a point of distinction for us, but hopefully it will become the norm,“ says Conniff.
Teammates and Guests
Those who work at Luke’s are called teammates, not employees, and those who eat at Luke’s are always referred to as guests.
“We have deep connections to the people who work here. It’s about the whole package: the product, the people, the story behind it, and that creates an awesome atmosphere for the teammates and, ultimately, the guests,” says Haley Foydel, assistant general manager of the Chicago shop.
When Conniff was first looking for food jobs, he couldn’t get hired because there was nothing food-related on his resume. “We don’t think that’s a productive way to build your team. Celebrating everyone’s strengths and interests is the best way to have a happy and motivated team, and when your team is happy and motivated, guests want to come back.”
Aside from a fair wage and bonus program, Luke’s provides an outlet for creativity in the way of flexible work schedules and something unique to Luke’s: a ’zine created and contributed to by teammates and paid for by the company. It’s distributed at all the locations and available on the website, and Conniff, an accomplished writer in his own right who’s been published in GQ, Smithsonian, and Playboy, has released a cookbook, called “Real Maine Food.”
“We don’t just encourage foodservice people to work here. We encourage anyone who is passionate about what they do to work here because that translates to the service they provide to guests,” says Conniff. “We’re also artists, writers, poets, and actors, and we do what we can to promote those passions.”
“That’s what the ’zine is about. It’s about celebrating the work they do outside of Luke’s and helping them spread the word about their passions to guests and other teammates.”
Culture: Living the Brand
“I’ve had so many jobs where the leadership is held on a pedestal and difficult to talk to and it’s expected that you have to go through four people to get to them. Ben and Luke are still accessible,” says Foydel.
The Luke’s crew is split fairly evenly between seasonal teammates, aspiring writers, artists and students, and those who have seen the business grow quickly and want to be part of the Luke’s experience full time. Holden refers to the crew as family. “We’re very fortunate to attract honest, caring teammates,” he says.
Feldman refers to Holden’s and Conniff’s foodservice inexperience when talking about the culture they have now. “At the beginning, they relied heavily on the crew to help solve problems and were open to solutions that came from us. We were all in it together. Our growth wasn’t stunted with, ‘Hey, I’ve done this before and this is the way we’re going to do it now.’ They still rely on us like that.”
Now grown to more than 400 people with 17 locations, Luke’s remains a flat organization, according to Holden. “Everyone’s voice has an equal weight. We started with a nominal budget for this business and it’s been the collective efforts of everyone involved that turned that initial investment into a successful company.”
From day one, Luke’s has been on a profit-sharing program, where a large percentage of earnings go back to teammates in the form of bonus. While there are different bonus programs available, everyone from an entry-level teammate to the COO is able to participate.
According to Feldman, general managers (GMs) have a discretionary fund – called a “morale fund” – to use however they’d like at their location. In addition, GMs have the opportunity to learn the business from start to finish. “We’re invested in our GMs and those who want to stay with the company. We send GMs to Maine to spend time with Luke, learn about lobster traps, and see how the entire process works firsthand, from catching lobsters on through to the packaging to trucks to the locations the next day,” she says.
Everyone at Luke’s participates in a 360 review process that not only gives teammates perspective about their own personal development, but also gives the management team a pulse on the business.
“You’d be surprised at how many businesses fail because they don’t understand what their teammates see every day,” says Holden.
“Inspiring” is a word heard often when speaking with any of the Luke’s teammates.
“Luke is a very inspiring person. He’s one of those guys that can look at a problem or challenge and find three ways to solve it, and then he makes you excited about fixing it,” says Feldman.
And like a true leader, Holden finds inspiration from those around him. “To be a founder is something that I will always appreciate because this has gotten a lot bigger than I originally thought. Every day, I find our teammates really inspiring. “
When speaking about the future growth, Holden is clear about the path. “Our goal is to get in front of as many people as we can with our message of sustainability, traceability, and a high-quality sandwich. As long as we’re growing and not compromising our values and our quality, we’ll keep going.”