Ep. 6: INTERVIEW - Ben Conniff on Building Luke's Lobster

 
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Ben Connif:
September 1st of 2009 we signed a lease on that 7th Street place and he just casually dropped to me "You know I think people really think most about lobster and lobster rolls in the warmer weather and we barely have any money at all. So we need to get this thing open October 1st." And it was like, Oh, okay. So we have 30 days to go from signing a lease to fully opening and staffing and permitting and stocking a restaurant.

Brian Scordato:
Hello. This is the Idea is Startup podcasts brought to you by Tacklebox. I'm Brian Scordato and today we've got an amazing interview with one of the founders of Luke's Lobster, Ben Conniff. Luke's makes the best lobster rolls I have ever had. I've been eating them in New York City for over a decade. Ben talks through tactics that allowed two co-founders who met on Craigslist with no restaurant experience between them, to build a company with dozens of locations worldwide. Ben's a storyteller at heart and he crushes this interview. It's a great balance of story and tactics. And there should be tons of takeaways for early stage founders particularly those interested in sustainability.

Brian Scordato:
Now I'm going to warn you, there are traffic sounds there are sirens. This is a true New York City experience. It doesn't take away from the podcast but I did want to mention it. We're learning on the job here and now we've got two mics so this sort of thing won't happen again. We also aren't going to record in my apartment anymore. Once again we've got a copy of the transcript and the show notes and more info at gettacklebox.com. Just click on the button that says "podcast". If you're enjoying Idea to Startup subscribe rate and leave us a comment. If you want to chat, shoot me an e-mail - brian@gettacklebox.com. Enjoy.

Brian Scordato:
For those who don't know, I guess a good place to start is, what is Luke's Lobster?

Ben Connif:
That's a great question. Luke's Lobster is a main bread main style lobster shack. So we exist mostly in bigger cities around the US and also in Japan and Taiwan. But we have a very limited menu. Really the star of our show is that main style lobster roll which is put simply "the world's best lobster meat in a toasted bun" with very little else on it. Tiny bit of mayonnaise, a tiny bit of lemon butter, and a tiny bit of seasoning mixture. But really the lobster is the star of the show. And then we kind of surround that menu item with a crab roll, a shrimp roll and classic chowders, a clam chowder lobster bisque and a salad and a dessert. But it really is a, it's in its current iteration is very short menu that really focuses on the world's best lobster.

Brian Scordato:
Awesome and I can attest that it is so delicious. And the reason I reached out to you nine years ago was I was working on a previous startup and we wanted to get people excited about that startups I wanted to give them free or cheap Lukes Lobster rolls. I thought I'd be able to borrow some of that, that goodness. So I have a bunch of questions and I think a cool place to start is just the origin story, like how how this got going and how such a simple idea of a lobster roll now has become global.

Ben Connif:
Yeah. So my partner is Luke. Luke is a real person and he is a third generation lobstermen. He's from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. And when he was growing up his father was a lobster fisherman and then a lobster dealer and then actually the first processor of lobster in Maine. So what that means is rather than trying to sell live lobster all over the country, he was taking live lobster at its best and strongest moment, right when it comes out of the water, and cooking it and then basically locking in the quality of that lobster at that stage and selling these value added products. Whether it was cooked lobster knuckle and claw meat or it was raw frozen lobster tails and a bunch of other products that the running theme is you take the lobster at its best and you make the product there rather than shipping live lobster around the country around the world and have it consume its own fats and proteins as it's out of its natural habitat. So Luke grew up started lobstering as a kid, learned to do it went through that kind of apprenticeship program called Journeyman for an Existing Lobstermen and then built his own skiff and shop class and actually started lobstering in high school and into college in the summers. But halfway through college his parents said you know what "we're not paying you, we're not paying for you to go to college to be a lobstermen forever. So you're going to have to find something else to do next summer if we're going to keep you in college".

Ben Connif:
So that's how he sort of got into the finance world developed an interest in it did some internships and wound up out of college in 2007 at a banking job in New York. It was a good job but he didn't have a ton of passion for it ultimately and he found that he really missed that traditional Maine style lobster roll and that connection to his home industry. So he's sort of search around all over New York City for a great lobster roll that was affordable and resonated with his experience in Maine. And it just wasn't one. Every lobster roll served here was extremely expensive and a white tablecloth environment. And the lobster was covered in Mayonnaise, chives and celery and all this filler.

Ben Connif:
So, he looked at his dad's business model saw that there was a way to get better lobster meat than anybody else was serving, down to the city, through that connection, for less money than others were charging and to build out a truly casual authentic Maine style Lobster Shack which you know, which didn't have the frills that ring up the bill in you know, when you're white tablecloth settings. We built that business model while he was in his desk and basically he had, you know, maybe a little over $15,000 saved up from bonuses at his job. And his dad basically matched that amount of money none of us knew until a few years later his dad told us that he'd actually pulled that from his 401K And so we had just over $30,000. There was no way he could quit that job and just jump into this very speculative thing. So he knew he needed a partner and for some reason he decided that he would put an ad on Craigslist to find that partner.

Ben Connif:
I had graduated from college didn't really know what I wanted to do. My dad's a writer. I thought maybe that was a skill that I could that I could make something out of. And so I've been work the editorial internships and I've been freelance writing and kind of trying to make it in that world. And I'd focus more and more on food writing because that was what I found I was most passionate about. But ultimately after 2 years sitting at home alone on my computer wasn't what was motivating for me. I loved cooking and I miss being part of a team and seeing people every day interacting with with my friends and with strangers too. And I just realized my love of food my love of people meant that the service industry was something that I should really consider.

Ben Connif:
So I was cruising Craigslist for the most entry level restaurant jobs. Frankly, I couldn't even get a response to any of the jobs I applied for that didn't have experience. And then I find this guy who just posted on the site "I'm from Maine and I have a background in lobster and I really want to start a Maine lobster shack and need a partner to help out". And I was like this, I mean first of all the fact that this guy's posting this on Craigslist means like, you know I don't I mean me I have one screw is at least. And also like I have no experience, there's no way I'm going to hear back. I sent an email I just said "look I visited Maine a lot as a kid. I specifically visited lobster docks and like hung out there and watched lobstermen go in and out. And it's to industry that I've always been in love with and a food I've always been in love with the rest of it I can figure out.".

Ben Connif:
And I heard back in less than a day. And we met up like two days after that and two days after that he flew me to Maine to meet his family and to see his dad's business and basically for them to get a read on whether I'd be the right person to start this business with and that they're all I'd like to think good judges of character. So within a week of meeting it was a done deal. We were going for it. We were already starting to look at leases on some spaces that he had sort of picked out as as possible first locations and this was mid August of 2009. So September 1st of 2009 we signed a lease on our 7th Street place and he just casually dropped to me "You know I think people really think most about lobster and lobster rolls in the warmer weather and we barely have any money at all. So we need to get this thing open October 1st". And it was like, Oh okay so we have 30 days to go from signing a lease to fully opening and staffing and permitting and stocking a restaurant.

Brian Scordato:
And did you each have, did you still each had your jobs at this point?

Ben Connif:
I didn't have a job. I'd been freelance writing, so I just I pretty much dropped that as soon as I signed up with Luke's. I had some lingering pieces out there that I needed to edit and stuff like that, that I kind of chipped away at, in my one minute per week of free time. But I was I was all in on this and immediately went from like my typical 45 hour a week of work as a freelancer to 110. Just like {snap} overnight and I'd never considered ever working that much in my life. I honestly never thought of being a business person and never thought um, I was kind of like, a freelancer, like kind of a creative person. Not exactly a business guy at all. So there's something about this project resonated so strong with me that it wasn't even a question. I immediately drove in and spent every waking breathing moment on it and like I had just never felt more fulfilled than that 30 days. We have a goal, we have no choice but to hit it and we just have to figure out how to do it no matter what.

Brian Scordato:
I know you said it was just something about the opportunity but I'm so curious as to what what it was can you. Was it like, Luke and the thought of what you could build? Or was it the product itself or was there some validation from customers?

Ben Connif:
I mean I wasm Luke and I maybe had talked once about the possibility that if this went well there could be more. I was not at all optimistic on that front. I thought that this was gonna be a side project for Luke and if I was lucky it was going to pay my rent, put it was gonna be something I was passionate about. And to me it was it was, is was how much I love lobster and how much I knew and then Luke taught me about how sustainable and wonderful and kind of individual entrepreneurial the lobster industry is. And what what the industry meant to so many small time fishermen. And just the passion Luke had for the business, the history he had with his family in the business, you know it all just resonated with me. This wasn't, this wasn't somebody who just wanted to start a startup and they just real through a bunch of ideas until they found one that maybe would stick. This was like a lifetime and generations of love for this industry that was motivating this. And me being able to feed off that and own a part of that and take just full responsibility at that at that time, while Luke had a job, for birthing this thing even if it just ended up being one location forever. Is something about taking ownership a way that I'd never gotten into you before, it just just floored me.

Brian Scordato:
Wow. I'm like kind of floored as well. So tell me about that month and how you were prioritizing. So Luke had history with the sourcing side but had anyone in Luke's family ever built a restaurant before or was restaurant new?

Ben Connif:
Restaurant was new, restaurant is new to all of us. I've worked in a doughnut shop before you know, frosting the doughnuts and pumping the jelly. That's it. I mean I guess I'd buy bus tables, but no, we really didn't know what was going on, on that front. We just had to imagine like OK what all goes into running a restaurant and and building one? And so there was just so much Googling and so many literally just walking next door to Caracas and asking Maribel, our neighbor, for advice on what it meant to own a restaurant. And she was wonderful. And Sarah Jenkins at Port Catto was helpful. And you know it's a great neighborhood there.

Brian Scordato:
So it's on 7th and 1st?

Ben Connif:
Yeah 7th between 1st and A. And you know there was just. Okay I know that I'm going to need a building permit such as going to go to the Department of Buildings and wander around until either they throw me out or I figure out how to get a building permit. And I know we need a health permit and a health inspection. So same deal where the Department of Health is you know and obviously. I had a you know some, some background in like renovating apartments just painting kind of light work like that. And so did Luke and some of his friends. So we just did everything ourselves on that front. Luke's uncle came down and helped us with the finer carpentry of just the bar counter. And basically everything else we just kind of painted this little shoe box space and rolled in refrigerators and you had an artist friend of Luke's brother who came and did a mural for us which was really cool.

Ben Connif:
So it just it wasn't so much that I was good at prioritizing. It was just that I just did everything I possibly could all the time and just ran around like crazy. And there was no, you know if I wasn't I wasn't doing something with my hands and I was on the phone all the time. And then the staffing part of it too, totally new to me, so again and turning right back to Craigslist and interviewing tons and tons and tons of people. And I think just being, going with my gut on how to feel that I got from these people and whether they could convince me that they would be excited and committed to to be a part of this team amd you know there were some great people that I just that I didn't hire because I was just extremely extremely selective about putting together a team that I thought would, would jive well, work together well and appreciate the idea of being instrumental to a completely new thing.

Brian Scordato:
So what struck me, I remember I went to that lobster shacks I have friends who lived on 7th. I went there like early on and I remember thinking "this has a strong brand". Like there there's, like a very consistent brand throughout and I'm wondering how you cultivated that? If you, if it was purposeful or like how you thought about that first?

Ben Connif:
Absolutely. To me you know my partnership with Luke, he's, he's great with numbers, he's great with mechanical aspects of the business and and the way the lobster industry works. And and with relationships I've, you know, I've always had the role of being more on the creative side and more of the story of the brand. And to me this brand grew out of a reaction to there not being any authentic kind of seaside true main shack experience in New York. And so authenticity was from a brand perspective a cornerstone for me. And and rooting that in Luke's own story and his own history growing up in the industry and thinking about where he went eat lobster rolls when he was a kid and where I went to eat lobster rolls when I was a kid and making sure that everything that we did here in New York was true to that.

Ben Connif:
And we've said for going on 10 years now is, if you're in the streets in New York City and you open a door and you walk into a Luke's, it's almost as though the air should change and you feel like you are sitting on a dock and you're in a rural place, like a quiet place, a slower place where you've completely left the surrounding hustle and bustle. Everything we tried to do it aesthetically or for how we talked about the experience of being at Luke's was grounded in the authenticity to the experience that we knew from childhood.

Brian Scordato:
So you were you were a storyteller and you came to Luke's and you said alright let's just continue to tell stories here and have a very specific clear brand. I think that that went through to product selection. I always thought it was interesting when I went in and you'd look at like the drinks and like it seemed like every item on the menu was always very purposeful. There weren't just like the thing with all the soft drinks like it was specific like root beer and a few other items. I'm curious about those decisions for what your early product selection would be.

Ben Connif:
So we knew the one product we're going to have was an authentic Lobster Roll and something that really spoke to me to the main routes of the company. And I guess that, that's going to end up being a pun. But it wasn't intended. So you know filling out the rest of the menu, it was going to be short and sweet. And we're going to serve things that we could do better than anybody else. Looking at the drink selection, even if for the longest time on the coast of Maine, if you went to a lobster shack you're probably going to get a Coke. You know we thought but what what would really speak today to Maine today, even better. And we found its main route soda brand, which was a fledgling brand back then, only a few years older than us, but the quality of the root beer they made specifically, but then also the Ginger Brew which is something that you know, a really good spicy ginger beer is something that Mainers really appreciate. And you know a cola that's made with fairtrade organic sugar and things like that. We're talking about sustainable lobster, sustainable fishing and the opportunity to bring a product that was from Maine and that was sustainable and that aligned with our values and that sort of spoke in the same language that our food was speaking, it just immediately appealed to me. Yes we're going to have to charge a little bit more for this drink but it's going to align so much better with everything else that we're doing. And that's sort of how we how we made each of those decisions.

Brian Scordato:
Cool, So let's go back to, I'm really interested in this first month. So did you get, did you make it by October 1 and then what happened?

Ben Connif:
Yeah we did. It was kind of unbelievable but we we did put it all together. We did get, not a big enough team as it turned out for how busy we were but an amazing team that stuck with us for a long time. Some that are still with us today. And you know, we had to like the requisite pre inspection a couple of days before and I had no idea, and we had again we had restaurant friends in the neighborhood come by and walk through and say here's what else Inspector I point out over here. Here's a hole that you need to patch and things like that. And you know, we just worked through the night for the day before that inspection. But once you passed that inspection, it was like OK this is real. We're actually going to open October 1st.

Ben Connif:
Meanwhile at the press release was distributing out to all my old media contacts doing interviews, a tasting table and Grub Street eater, you know all those where we're still early days for all those companies too. I mean we were maybe one of the first things that Infatuation wrote about because they started right around the same time we did. It was called Immaculate Infatuation back then. And so you know, this whole, this whole world of kind of like food obsession was was in its early early hay days that time.

Ben Connif:
So being able to get the word out about this guy and his stories back home from Maine and how that was bringing authenticity to the food that he would bring to the East Village just resonated so well that you know we had a line down the street around the block on the first day. And you know when I could take a break I'm calling Luke's Dad saying "How quickly can we get more lobster down here? Can you go somewhere and buy more buns" because you can't get a Maine style split top bun in New York City. You probably can now but you definitely couldn't then. So we had to get at least across the line into somewhere in Connecticut to get that type bun. But it just yeah it was just it was so much busier than we had anticipated. Typically you think about a restaurant being like OK no one's gonna know you exist for a few months we're going to slowly build word of mouth and maybe eventually we'll be able to an article written about us and now bring people in. We had the New York Times in their reviewing us, that, the second weekend we were open and it just, it just jumped off so quickly.

Ben Connif:
And we were scrambling to meet the demand but we had three products and one product that made up at that point probably over 80 percent of our sales. And the one thing we knew how to do make that thing perfectly. We had no to-go packaging on our first existence. We just didn't think of that. So it was complete insanity. It's like nothing but working all the time. I just didn't see friends unless I lived with them. For basically the first two years Ifell off the face of the earth. But you know every day there was another thing that was screwed up the day before that wasn't screwed up that day. And each day you could you were you were mainly just making and serving lobster rolls but you'd find enough time to make one or two improvements so that the next day was smoother and the experience for the guest was a little better each day. And luckily just the quality of the food and how friendly we were to people was enough to get people coming back again and again and bringing friends and telling their friends. So there was no real slow down in that initial burst of energy.

Brian Scordato:
So what do you think, or you might know, what were people telling their friends about? What was like, the soundbite that they would say about Luke's that got people to come?

Ben Connif:
Yeah. Before anyone had tried it, it was read this cool story about this, you know the economy had just tanked. And everyone blamed the finance industry. And so it's a great story about a guy who's who's like ditching his finance career and just putting it all into a, into a restaurant business. He's from Maine and he's got this connection to the best lobster you can get. And then when people started eating it, it was like, "Oh my God I didn't know this place had the best lobster roll". So it's still it is predominantly like the sound bite that people give easily is they have the best lobster rolls and they're from Maine. Usually that's like that's the first proof point, "they've got the best lobster rolls and they're from Maine".

Ben Connif:
And you know what we want people to know from there is "they're from Maine, they own their business every step from the lobster at the docks, all the way through to the plate. And they know from generations of experience exactly how to handle and cook and pack and prepare this food so that it could not be better". We had this whole other mission of sustainability and stakeholder theory and taking care of fishermen and all that. But in order to get people in the door and get the business and the sales that we need to actually do all that other stuff, the way it is always through the quality of the food and then the proof point of why it is that quality.

Brian Scordato:
It's really interesting. I remember when I, the first time I went, so my mom's obsessed with Lobster rolls. Her and I've had like a mother son thing with them forever and I think I think it was that initial New York Times article that she sent to me. And when we talked about was, something that I had always had this held belief that like a lobster sitting in a tank in the front of a restaurant meant fresh lobster. And she pointed out that that was not the case at all. That like the way that Luke's gets their lobster so fresh is they cook them immediately after they come out. I remember thinking like that's really interesting. That's completely counterintuitive to how I would think about it. But then it makes sense and I tried it. And then once I tried it I remember thinking "this is incredible". Something I want to bring up too. So like you mentioned that it's, it was less expensive than like a higherend lobster roll at a restaurant. But I remember for like, whatever I was, twenty five year old Brian, it was a little bit of it was like a little expensive for me. $17. I'm interested in that price point and where do those initial customers were. And was this like a stretch for them or how they think about it?

Ben Connif:
Yeah we think about that all the time because we want the biggest tenant we possibly can. Of course we want as wide a guest base coming in as we can get. And so we could come in could a market analysis and said the average cost of a lobster roll in New York is $25. So we could prices at 22 and undercut all those other people and we'll win. But the fact is the average person in New York couldn't afford the average lobster roll in New York at 25. They couldn't afford 22 and the average person in New York couldn't afford 14 where we started. But, a lot more people could afford 14 than 22.

Ben Connif:
And what we wanted to do is was basically say with the economy tanking, there was a big loss and demand for lobster. Because most people eat lobster at these super high end restaurants, where they were like you know, there's a there's a closing tender for their banking field or it was like their 10th anniversary and they're really splurging. That was how people thought about lobster. When the economy went there were a lot fewer of those splurge meals. But for us, it wasn't this like once in a lifetime splurge on the docks of Maine. It wasn't like that at all. It wasn't cheap, but it was something that could be approachable for more of an everyday celebration. So that was what we wanted to achieve and we wanted to do it because we wanted to grow demand for this product. We knew these fishermen were out there following sustainable management techniques that made it much more difficult and expensive for them to do their jobs. And they were in situations where they didn't have a market for the lobster that they could catch.

Ben Connif:
So we wanted as many people as possible eating lobster rolls. And for us that meant, taking a much smaller percent profit margin on the food than a typical restaurant and hope that people would appreciate that enough that we would do the volume to make up for that lower margin. And then save, save on rent by being in a tiny space. Save on labor by having a process that only required a couple of people as opposed to a white tablecloth restaurant which need a whole back half staff, a whole front of house staff. And just find everywhere else where we could do it ourselves for less money, to save up and then be able to charge as little as possible for the lobster roll.

Brian Scordato:
So you open up this first restaurant, things are going great, are very very busy. How do you start thinking about growth then and how long did it take to get to the point where it's like this is something that we can start to prioritize or franchise how we think about it?

Ben Connif:
Yeah I think we wanted to see, is this going to be coming a flash in the pan, one week of awesomeness or is this going to sustain? And a responsible person would have said "Okay, let's give it two years and then and then see how it's going". We gave it like three months and when it was still doing well, in December, you know outside of what people would classically think of as the strong season for a lobster shack, Luke said "I think we're ready to expand". And I said Luke we're still like storing cash under your mattress because we haven't even had the time to install a safe in that restaurant yet. We knew we weren't ready to expand yet. And he said the demand is heavy right now and if we can't lean into that and we can't keep the momentum, that we have as a brand, then you know we might might miss our chance. And I may not have actually agreed but I said OK. But the one thing that he did say was if we sign a second lease I'll quit my job.

Brian Scordato:
So he hadn't quit yet?

Ben Connif:
No he he'd not quit. He didn't quit until we signed that second lease that's when he put in his notice at work. So yeah I mean for me I'm thinking OK I'm I'm still working 110 hours a week, I still seeing so much room for improvement in this business. How can we, how can we grow? And he convinced me that the timing was necessary to not just kind of fade out of the public conversation and that we had a great team and that we could be tolerant of a certain number of mistakes and a certain number of imperfections. So long as we were true to the ideals of having the highest quality product and serving the ingredients that we believed in and taking care of people.

Ben Connif:
So we decided to go start looking and in the Upper East Side was our next . you know, we're going to reach a totally different group of people up there. But another group of people who really care about lobster and who understand that coastal feel from from trips that the folks take. And who were really lacking an approachable casual restaurant for great food. A lot of these companies now have gone to the Upper East Side and been successful there, but back then it was really only really nice restaurants in the area. And so we went out and we found that space and there was, I mean, there was a lot of heartache with, we promoted a great person to oversee that for a shack while we focused on the second, but frankly we didn't give her enough enough support. And it was very difficult for her to to grow into that role. None of our people were any more experienced than we were. They were just hardworking and smart and and wanting to get it done.

Ben Connif:
Learning to manage from outside the four walls of the restaurant is very difficult, but we just felt back on the fact that our relationships with our team were so strong and their belief in us and in the company and what we're doing was so strong that we survived a lot of bad management decisions and not really knowing what we were doing because we had great people and ultimately we all love each other enough to to forget a lot of screw ups.

Brian Scordato:
And you had an exceptional product.

Ben Connif:
Yeah that's yeah. And from a guest perspective that always got us through any mishaps.

Brian Scordato:
I think that that growth is really interesting. So we've got, as I mentioned, we'll have a lot of a lot of like early stage founders listening to this and a lot of folks get to a point where it's time to like hire your first person. And I guess in your case you had probably two different types of hires. You had more so staff would be running the restaurant or interfacing with your customers, who were incredibly important and then more strategic higher level hires. When did you decide it was time to hire someone and what were you looking for in that person?

Ben Connif:
Good question. I mean there's so I think there's a couple of different I would say key outside hires along the way that we made the first position that was ever created at Luke's outside of just working in a restaurant was a promotion of a girl named Evie, from working on the line to running quote on quote "H.R." for us. Which at the time basically meant job posting, interviewing and hiring, because we needed to continue to do that both for the existing location and the new location and were so focused elsewhere. And her only qualification for that job was that everybody liked her. She was super nice and caring. And I thought, Ok, that's like the right attitude to have for HR.

Ben Connif:
So that was the first corporate job that we had. She still worked probably, 4+ shifts a week in the restaurant but then also carved out time to do this other stuff too. And then the first outside hire of that sort was a girl named Nina. She was working in restaurant operations at the time and really had a strong interest in finance and she came into basically clean up our bookkeeping. Which had been on, basically Luke would create an excel spreadsheet with some various categories of spending, print it out, bring it to me and I would fill it out with pencil and paper when I bought stuff. Like that was our means of accounting and then I would write in what our sales were each day. So you know things like..

Brian Scordato:
Bulletproof.

Ben Connif:
Like having an accounting system. There was no way even with Luke's experience and knowledge of numbers, there was no way either of us would have had the time to build out a Quick Books system or now, you know, Restaurant 365. But at the time was like very basic Quickbooks. So bringing on Nina on to immerse herself in the accounting side of what we were doing and make sure that we didn't just get so excited about how much business we were doing that we lost all our money because we weren't tracking our expenses the right way. And we just think things got too hectic. So that happened a little less than a year into existing as a business I'd say. And that was a game changer for us, just to know that there was somebody looking out for us on that front.

Ben Connif:
So you know if we were focused on growth we were focused on hiring or training or marketing, someone who would safeguard that. And then over time bringing people into marketing positions and compliance. And compliance was my sister. And they were everybody that we brought in on that front which was you know junior or not particularly experienced in that field but convinced us that they were, they had the right head on our shoulders to be able to make it happen. Some of them were promoted from within. Some of them from the outside.

Ben Connif:
It was 20...2015 I think when we finally decided, "you know we actually need somebody who's got major serious experience in this industry". You know. we were very cocky for a long time. We actually thought we're better off without experience because we're doing things our own way and a certain point there are just things that are true to every business and every restaurant business and structures that you need to put in to succeed. And so we found a guy named Alan Dempsey who'd been running restaurants for a few decades and was kind enough and patient enough to join us. You know a couple of kids and a company full of kids that didn't really know what they were doing and we were luckily humble enough to say "yeah we've been really successful so far but we have a sense that we may not be successful for too much longer without some adult help".

Ben Connif:
And he was just incredible at formalizing training programs for us and letting us know, like this thing that you do that is great for your family cultural feel of your business, like it's going to have to stop because it's going to create liabilities for you. And and it kind of taught us to, he helped us with that transition where, the stuff that you do that felt like very like raw and authentic and cool, like going and getting completely plastered with your team after work, like stopping doing that, you know you can see that as becoming corporate and being lame and square and like turning the business into something different; or you can see it as, you continue to do that and you know people might get hurt and it's not fair to your team and it's not ultimately good for anybody. And if you're going to make a decision if you actually care about your people and you actually love your people, you're not going to show that forever by making irresponsible decisions around them. You're going to show that by taking a step back and doing what's actually better for their professional growth in their personal growth. And not saying we don't have beers with our teams anymore. But it is to say that we're always cognizant of what's safe and what's what's good for people now and what's appropriate professional relationship, even if you have a really fulfilling personal relationship with your with your team as well. So we credit Alan for helping us kind of mature there, without losing the soul of the company.

Brian Scordato:
Yeah I think that's an interesting segway into some of the sustainability stuff which I think is sort of on the side of the business we haven't talked too much about. On the supplier side. So I know your you're a B core. A lot of our founders have a goal of sustainability and socially responsible actions, but at times there can be tension between trying to start up a company in a way that's most profitable so that you can continue to like grow versus that sustainability side. So I'm curious how you guys think about that and how you've been able to stay so focused on the prioritizing sustainability.

Ben Connif:
Yeah. The constant battle, honestly and it keeps me up most nights, to know that we do so many things that are environmentally and socially sustainable and we do other things that are not environmentally sustainable at least. And we can't afford to do. And you have to accept that there are some things that you can do immediately and there are some things that you need to set as goals and try to hold yourself to so that you know if you become financially successful you will make this improvement. If you attain this level of profitability you will invest that profitability in doing this better. So for us there are things we'll never compromise, we'll never buy an ounce of seafood from a fishery that's not sustainably managed. That was our, that was our starting point.

Ben Connif:
I think the key is if at all possible just never go backwards. Right? So as you become more successful and you scale, remember to invest some of that success not just in growing, for the sake of growing, but also improve one element of your packaging to expand a little more on something that's made from recycled materials as opposed to virgin materials. Be ready to lose that little bit of your P&L and make it up wherever else you've been successful. And as we've come through this process we've done that. We've moved away from a lot of the packaging that we didn't like, but we still have stuff that we're not proud of and we still have disposables that I wish we didn't use, but they're about as good as they can be, but they're still disposables. But we can't afford to necessarily put dishwashers in all these places or frankly the like, end our existing leases and taking new leases on spaces that are big enough to have dishwashers. Where we'd have storage space for four reusable metalware.

Ben Connif:
So you can't hold yourself to a standard of perfection. You can only set the baseline of what you'll never compromise and then set goals. And we're getting better at that. Especially since becoming a B-Corp and going through the certification. Because you see all the points you've got for how wonderful you are and not to see all the points you missed and they put a great emphasis on transparency in goal-setting and trying to improve every single year. So you know getting a place where you know I never measured my use of disposables before, but now you know I have a spreadsheet that tells me exactly how many cases and dollars and pounds of disposables I ordered last year. And I have a 25 percent reduction goal for this year and maybe for next year that can be a 50 percent reduction goal. And I can hold myself to that. And that's what's sustainable for the environment is you know stopping using all of it. But you just we would lose all of our takeout business which is 50 percent of our business, because so many people would be angry at us for that.

Ben Connif:
And you have to remind yourself that, I live in the bubble where I understand the effect that plastics have on the world. So when I get takeout I ask for no utensils and I bring it home and I use my own utensils. And that's great for me, because I'm in the bubbl. And not everybody is there and you can't hate everybody that's not oh because they're busy with their stuff and it's not easy to constantly have that awareness of everything around you that it affects the environment. So we have to accommodate our guests desires enough to stay in business and then strive to slowly make the changes and communicate with people. Four years ago we got rid of straws and we had people that were pissed off about it and you just have that conversation. Those straws are terrible for the environment and it's not that difficult to sip your soda at the bottle and we lost a couple of of guests from that maybe. But you know we also help teach people through that experience. And it wasn't so bad that we lost enough guests that it ran us to the ground.

Ben Connif:
And I think you know with people's awareness growing more, there's going to be more and more tolerance. And we're starting to get nailed on social media for people who do see the disposables and I love it. As much as I don't like them you know talking about how awful we are. I love that they're saying it's bad that we have these disposable wares because it is and we do it is our guests demand it, but we all together as a community.. That's the thing, like your company, it's not just your company, it's it's your suppliers and your team and you and your guests kind of all need to move as one and you can't get too far out ahead of what your guests desire or you'll lose them.

Ben Connif:
So we need to, we need to bring them on together. And they need to, you know these few who are on social media complaining about our plastic-wares are great because they're helping the push us and hopefully together we're all moving in the right direction. That's that's how this whole industry is going to is going to hopefully heal itself, by working with the customers to talk about those issues and help them get to a place where they're, they're OK with having to use their own reusable utensils someday.

Brian Scordato:
Mm hmm. What a tremendous point of view. That's like. That's really good. I appreciate that. I want to be cognizant of time. I think that's a cool place to close. I could ask a hundred more questions about Lukes as you scale, but I think for our customers, you talked about a lot of this stuff will be relevant for them. So I have a couple of questions at the end that I think are kind of interesting. So let's say that you were starting, say a Taco Truck, now and you're like I'm starting this business from zero. What would your approach be knowing what you know?

Ben Connif:
You know in that, in that instance first of all, to, for me to be starting a truck, I would say based on we'd have to assume that I have some very emotional and authentic connection to tacos. Whether it's through the ingredients that are going in those tacos or is the concept of the taco itself having been you know a huge part of my life. And frankly as I mentioned offline, my dog is named Taco. So maybe that will be enough for me. I'm a major lover of tacos. But my point is whenever you're going into it it has to be your, it has to be your passion and it has to be a very authentic and believable reason that you are the person that needs to have this Taco Truck and a Taco Truck is the thing that you need to be doing. It's the thing that is going to, that you're going to find your mission and your fulfillment in, in order to do it.

Ben Connif:
I do believe fundamentally for lots of people work is work and in a job is a job. But if you're going to start, manage and own something in the food industry, it can't be that. It can't be. It'll never be punching in and punching out, there will be no punching out ever. So you need to love it so much and you need to always be able to come back to that in the hardest of times. So that's sort of the baseline. And if I couldn't convince myself of that and I couldn't imagine how hard and how bad it's going to be at times and know that I want to stick through it then I'd feel I wouldn't do it.

Ben Connif:
But then beyond that I would say like establishing the philosophy of first how you're sourcing your ingredients and how are you ensuring that they're going to be perfect every time. How close can you get to the source of your key ingredients, to where you have so much trust in your suppliers and the people that you rely on, and they have trust in you that you're going to take care of them, that you'll always know that the product that you're going to give people is pristine. Assuring that that product is going to be what you are proud of every time you open the door that Taco Truck is critical.

Ben Connif:
And then just putting that same amount of effort into your team and your company culture because you know if you're lucky someday you won't need to be the one that's making and serving the tacos every minute that truck is open. You're going to be able to have a team that believes in you and believes in your business and wants it to succeed enough that, you can go start another Taco Truck. And the people on the first one are going to make the same decisions that you would have made if you were on that truck. So that's, I mean for us it is the products and team. And if you have ultimate faith that you've done right by those two things then you're going to be able to grow. And I mean there's certainly no guarantee of success. There's so many external factors in this business that could just absolutely destroy you. But, at least you'll have done, in my mind, the two most important things to give you the best chance of succeeding.

Brian Scordato:
Wow, uh great answer and I think that's a cool place to end. This was super super awesome. I've got pages of notes. Uh really helpful, I really appreciate you coming by everyone go to Luke's Lobsters. It's terrific. I don't know if you have anything specific you want to leave folks with.

Ben Connif:
I'd just say our mantra at this point, we didn't have a mantra when we started because we're too busy, but our mantra now is "know your seafood". And it's, it's what we think sets us apart, is that is that connection to our lobstermen, to the environment where they fish, to knowing how they think, what's important to them, all the way through to the guys that drive the truck and lobster to our plant, to the teammates who serve it, to the guests. And knowing your lobster is about knowing all those steps of everything that's sort of beneath the tip of the iceberg in the restaurant. And hopefully getting to a place over, we're 10 years in, hopefully 10 years from now we can say our guests know much more about the seafood they eat and they bring that philosophy "know your seafood" to their other restaurant experiences and their own cooking experiences. And again together we grow towards a place where everybody knows more about what it took to get their food from where it started to their place.

Awesome. Thank you. Thank you. Awesome.

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Episode Description:

Ben and Luke, the founders of Luke’s Lobster, knew how to make a killer lobster roll when they decided to start Luke’s Lobster, a lobster shack in the East Village in 2009. They didn’t know much else. Ben talks through how they were able to build an incredible company with locations all over the globe while keeping sustainability as a top priority. We focus on the early days, discussing tactics and learnings that will be extraordinarily helpful for our early stage founders. 

Show Notes:

 
Ben (left), and Luke (right), the founders of Luke’s Lobster

Ben (left), and Luke (right), the founders of Luke’s Lobster

Luke’s Lobster, Lobster Roll

Luke’s Lobster, Lobster Roll

 

You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes and here on gettacklebox.com/idea-to-startup.



Brian Scordato