This week, Vox had the opportunity to chat with Luke Holden (MSB ’07), owner of Luke’s Lobster which opened recently on Potomac Street in Georgetown. Holden talks about how he came to own and operate Luke’s Lobster, what it means to have opened in Georgetown, and a little rant on the difficulty of owning a socially responsible and sustainable restaurant.
Luke Holden: This is our ninth location, our third in the D.C. area. We opened in Penn Quarter last June and then we opened in Bethesda a month and a half ago. Georgetown opened this past Thursday. We’ve been actively pursuing this Georgetown space for probably close to two years.
Before we even had the Penn Quarter space, we were popping in and out because Philly P. was having trouble with the community board, and they were kind of opening and closing. And then they repurposed the space under a couple of different failed concepts, so we were actively trying to figure out who the landlord was for well over a year, probably closer to two years.
So, when it actually came on the market we got awfully excited. There were like ten people who knew we were interested and shot us emails saying they think it’s coming to market. So it really exciting, probably the most exciting opening we’ve had, particularly just because of how much Georgetown means to me and being able to give back to the community of the university.
The space itself was a complete dump. We didn’t have to move any walls or any significant fixtures, but we had to bring up floors and take down all the crap on walls, there were multiple layers of sheet rock and tile. We basically took the floors off, the wall off and refurbished everything. And it was a greasy dilapidated mess. It took us about a month and half to build that out. [...]
We used a lot of reclaimed products from Maine. First, the floors, they used old floor wood from a dilapidated barn that they just refurnished. The support beams that they used for the ceiling and stairs were all beams they got from a shipyard up in Maine. The tabletops were all from lumber that they dredged up from the bottom of Moosehead Lake. That’s really neat they ended up taking logs up and splitting them to your desired thickness, so you get those natural rough edges of the tree so the boards are pretty cool. Then, we decorated the restaurant with float rope that has also been recycled from the state of Maine, when they basically outlawed the use of float rope because whales were getting caught in it.
Vox Pop: When you were at Georgetown would you ever have pictured yourself opening a restaurant here five years later?
Holden: Unequivocally, no. I would never have said that I would even be in the restaurant business. After graduation, I did the traditional investment banking route in New York City. I did that for three years. But I knew that was ultimately not where I wanted to end up. But I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I just sort of followed the trend. I’ve always been passionate about all things Maine, the fishing, the lobster industry, growing up working in that industry. It was more about working with Maine, and my father, and the relationships we have up there then it was about opening a restaurant, that was just sort of the vehicle I ended up choosing in order to work with Maine industry and a small business.
Vox Pop: Why do you think Luke’s is a good fit for Georgetown?
Holden: The typical consumer is affluent and well-educated and wants to know where their food is coming from. They want to know they are eating a fresh, high quality product and that’s really the linchpin of who we are and what we are doing. Bringing sustainable Maine seafood from the ocean floor to our customer’s plates. The feeling is that the Georgetown community will appreciate the work that we do to get the product from the fishermen to the restaurant. So that traceability, the fact that we are socially conscious and working with only sustainable resources, that consumer basis is really what we are targeting when we are looking at any sort of growth.
Vox Pop: Could you tell me a little more about your background, growing up in Maine, and I read online, on your website that you started a lobster company in high school, how did you get that start?
Holden: I grew up in a fishing family. My father is 35-40 years in the industry. He started as a fisherman and then went to doing some of those deep sea trolling boats where you go out for weeks at a time. And when my parents had me, my mom said that my dad couldn’t go out on those trips anymore. So he went back to lobstering and he worked his way up to being a dealers, buying products from his friends. He developed a retail market and then he got into processing. Worked his way up the value chain, so to speak.
When I was younger, I grew up working in those processing plants and on the docks and when I was 15, I decided I wanted to go work on the water so I got an apprenticeship, working as a sternman on a boat in my hometown, Cape Elizabeth. I ended up learning how to operate and harvest, and then I built two boats in high school. One of them was an 18 ft pointer, it was kind of cool it had a cabin on it so a couple of people could sleep in the front if you wanted to. And then I made a flat bottom skiff to get out to that boat every morning with my brother, who was the sternman. So I did that for three years I guess and then eventually my parents said they weren’t going to support the whole college thing if I was just going to continue to work in the seafood industry, so I started getting internships, deciding that finance was an okay landing spot for me.
Vox Pop: What would say to anyone looking to go into the restaurant business?
Holden: There is a large group of Hoyas in the food industry, whether its folks that are running restaurants, financing restaurants, covering them in the finance world, or covering them in the form of press. So it’s a tight knit group. We all talk. We all lean on each other where possible. Reaching out to the alumni network, getting plugged in. Taking the time to find a mentor, someone that can at least push you in the right direction when you have questions is a good idea. And it’s a network that is getting stronger and stronger.
Holden: Sure. So we can vouch that we have the highest quality, most affordable product out there because we are dealing directly with the processing plant and the fishermen. I think with the relationships we have growing up in the area we truly have a track and trace system in place, so we are cutting out the middle man, which effectively does two things: it reduces our cost that we can pass on to our customer and it also ensures that we are getting the product, directly from the source so we can guarantee its not sitting in a warehouse or a distrubution center waiting for someone to order it. We are literally tracing it and bringing it from the sea to our restaurant as quickly as possible.
Vox Pop: Do you see Luke’s as a model for other restaurants in the Seafood industry given that sustainability is such a huge issue for the industry in general?
Holden: I would hope so, I don’t know how practical it is. I mean, we have a really simple menu. We offer lobster, crab and shrimp rolls and our chowders and bisques which are from a small chowder company up in Maine and they are making everything in small batches. My point, we are bringing all the bread, all the soda down from Maine, so there is so much effort that goes into ensuring that the source of everything we are providing is top-quality, so its very difficult for somebody to emulate that. So while I would hope that a lot of restaurants would be focusing on serving products that are only from sustainable resources, it can be difficult.
I’m going to start a rant now. I feel like ten years ago, people were all fascinated with things that were all natural. And then, five years ago people started being obsessed with things that were organic. And now everyone’s all about sustainability and traceability. But in so many ways, those things are sort of undefined and something that is sustainable has a lot of different components to it. Traceability and sustainability are sort of a 360 product where you need to know start to finish, how you are getting your product and how it is harvested to know the sustainability grade on. So this your eating something sustainable it undefined and hard to quantify.
I don’t know how you fix that necessarily, other than educating the consumer on what they are eating and how it got there and how it is being harvested. For us, its clear because our menu is so simple and we are working with the fisher and then putting it on common carrier trucks, full of 15 other palates, so the idea is that we are doing it in a way that is as socially responsible as we can. But when you get into bigger processes, it gets harder to see how this stuff is moving.