BEN CONNIFF ’07: Foodie, entrepreneur, lobster man

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Ben Conniff ’07 is bold. For two years following graduation, he was a freelance journalist with a passion for great food. Eventually tiring of the typewriter, Ben yearned for a more hands-on experience, and a serendipitous cyber encounter with lobster enthusiast Luke Holden was the spark. Two years later, Ben is the Vice President of the acclaimed Luke’s Lobster restaurant, bringing a little Maine to the swanky streets of NYC. Chase Neisner reports.

Q. How did you become involved in Luke’s Lobster?

A. I graduated from Yale in 2007, but when I left school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Over the course of a couple years I moved into freelance food writing, but eventually decided that I preferred to do something where I could really use my hands and get physically involved in the industry, rather than just writing about it. I hopped on Craigslist and started looking for food industry jobs. Luckily I saw an ad Luke had posted looking for a partner to help open a lobster roll restaurant. We met up and things just clicked really well. Neither of us had much restaurant experience, but we were both the kind of people that would work for it and do whatever it took to understand the process and put a business together.

Q. And what’s Luke like?

A. Luke is from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. His father was a lobsterman, who then started a lobster processing company. Luke actually worked on a lobster boat since he was very young. He eventually went off to school at Georgetown, got into business, and ended up in an investment banking job. In early 2009, he started to miss home, miss lobster, and he wanted to get back involved in the industry. He put together the idea to have a lobster roll restaurant in New York, which the city was pretty much lacking. Any other restaurant that sold a lobster roll was a fancy sit-down that focused more on their high class and pricey atmosphere and less on the food — not at all what you would find in Maine. Once Luke and his father worked out the model, they were looking for someone to help execute it.

Q. Why do you think people love Luke’s Lobster?

A. The traditional New York model is basically a fancy restaurant where you sit down and have waiter service. You get a lobster roll costing anywhere from 25 to 30 that’s more of a lobster salad than a roll; it’s got a lot of mayonnaise mixed into it, celery, and chives. It’s very different from the product we serve, and very different from the atmosphere we provide. Our focus is entirely on fresh lobster. You know exactly the harbor it comes from and when it’s caught. We bring it in and basically take a knife to a New England-style bun, toast it up, and put in a quarter pound of lobster. We put a tiny bit of mayo on the inside, squirt a little bit of lemon butter on top, and add a little bit of spices, but the vast majority of it is just the lobster. We don’t add other ingredients that cover up the flavor of the lobster.

Q. Where exactly does the lobster you serve come from?

A. Luke’s father has been catching and cooking lobster for three decades now, and they have it down to an exact science. It’s really the best lobster meat you can get anywhere. We have it shipped down directly from them. It doesn’t go through any middlemen, which means we get it a couple days fresher than everyone else and we don’t have to pay any markups for the middlemen in between. It allows us to have the highest-quality product you can get for a more affordable price. Our restaurant is real casual and family-oriented. You don’t go in there and pay 100 percent more for a waiter in a tux. You go and hang out and have fun; that’s what a lobster shack in Maine is all about. There’s no pretension.

Q. Are there any environmental or sustainable qualities that make Luke’s Lobster special?

A. Absolutely. The Maine lobster fishery, compared to any other lobster fishery in the world, is extremely sustainable and has been for decades. They have a lot of rules in Maine for catching lobster that don’t exist in Canada, or Cape Cod, or Long Island. It is a closed fishery, so you can’t have any new lobstermen, and current fishermen cannot give up their licenses. Every lobsterman only has a small number of traps they’re allowed to fish, and the trap design is highly regulated. They can’t take lobsters that are too small, but they also can’t take lobsters that are too big. When they get to be a certain size they become prolific reproducers and you want to keep them in the population.

The same is the case with egg-bearing females. If you ever catch a female lobster that has eggs on it, not only can you not keep that lobster, you also have to notch its tail before you throw it back. Anyone who catches a lobster with a notch in its tail, can never take that lobster whether it’s bearing eggs at that time or not. At one time it has, which means it’s reproductive and healthy.

Q. And have these regulations had a visible impact?

A. Yeah — we’ve seen catches go up a significant amount in the past decades. Just from 2009 to 2010 the catch went up another 12 million pounds of lobster, and because these regulations are in place, we know the only reason can be that the population is booming. There aren’t more fishermen setting more traps. The real cool thing about it is that these lobstermen police themselves. If someone is breaking the rules, it’s unlikely the DEP will come out and get them in trouble because the other lobstermen will have already put him in his place. It’s their industry, their livelihood, and they are going to protect it.

Q. How fresh is the lobster served at Luke’s for lunch? How long does it take to reach a plate in Manhattan?

A. It leaves Maine around noon, and we get it in at 8 a.m. the next morning. From the day it leaves Maine, it will usually be cooked the next morning. You’re getting a really fresh product. The other perk about working with Luke’s father is that they trace every lobster, every pound of meat, from the harbor where it’s caught to our front door. One thing about restaurants that buy from a distributor, they don’t know the history of their product. There’s no accountability for the product. We have the direct vertical connection so we don’t have to worry about the quality or origin of our lobster in any way.

Q. What are your plans for the future of Luke’s Lobster?

A. We currently have three locations in Manhattan and we’re working on opening a fourth in the Financial District and also to be in D.C. by the end of the year. The most important thing is to make sure everything that we do is consistently top-quality, and that our customers are happy, our staff is happy. As long as we can continue all those things we’ll grow as much as we can.

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