"Technically my first food industry job was at a donut shop at the beach
in my hometown of Old Lyme.... I didn't think of food as an eventual career then,
because everything I heard was that it was too stressful and extremely likely to fail.
Both of those things are true."
Ben Conniff (JE '07) is the President and Co-Founder of Luke's Lobster, a sustainability-minded eatery that's home to one of the best lobster rolls in NYC and beyond. We asked him to tell us how he came to sink his claws into lobster, what he sees for the future of the sustainable food industry, and how his days at Yale prepared him for his many successes.
Tell us about Luke's!
Luke's Lobster is a Maine-bred lobster shack serving the world's best lobster roll. We buy our lobster at the dock, directly from lobstermen we know, and we handle it every step of the way from there to the plate, through our vertically integrated Maine seafood company. This allows for unprecedented quality and consistency, and lets us trace our ingredients back to sustainable sources. We have 21 shacks in 8 US cities, 6 shacks in Japan, and another 8 US shacks opening this year.
What makes your idea unique?
We are linked to our source like no other restaurant of scale. We tell our guests exactly where the seafood they are eating came from every single day, even at our shacks in Japan. We've even formed the first lobster co-op with a restaurant group as a member in Tenants Harbor, Maine. But the beauty of our business is that we you can get the exact same quality at Luke's Lobster in Las Vegas as you can at Luke's at Tenants Harbor, which literally sits on the dock where the lobster is landed. It's all about how you care for your lobsterman partnerships, and how you care for your lobster.
Tell us about the journey from concept to execution.
My partner Luke dreamed up the idea while working a finance job in New York. He grew up in a lobstering family and lobstered as a kid before majoring in finance in college. His family connections to the industry allowed him to create a business model that cut out all the middle men between us and the source, putting us in sole control of quality and reducing cost so we could make lobster rolls more approachable to folks outside of Maine.
I met Luke on Craigslist when he was seeking a partner to start the business. We worked non-stop on a shoe string budget to get the first few open, doing everything ourselves despite having no restaurant industry experience. We figured things out as we went along, bucked accepted wisdom in a lot of ways (because we didn't know it) and managed to come out with a business that we were able to scale quickly without compromising quality or our values around sustainability and community. I was 24 at the time, so I was able to handle the ridiculous hours and physical toll, and basically put the rest of life on hold for a few years to make sure we thrived through our initial growth phase.
Who was a notable mentor?
Both my and Luke's parents are lifelong entrepreneurs. They taught us self discipline, ingenuity, and the constant pursuit of improvement. My parents were totally supportive of all the oddball career decisions I made in the years after college and that confidence helped me stay off the beaten path until I found something that worked.
What experience at Yale most impacted where you are today?
Undoubtedly running the tailgates for JE every fall. It may not sound like an important task but I took it extremely seriously, pulling together the best spread I could every home game Saturday and the away games at Harvard, which involved a surprising amount of logistical manipulation, creativity, fundraising, and most of all self-discipline. The vast energy and commitment I put into a dumb party made me realize how much passion I had for hospitality and entertaining, which translated directly to my eventual career.
What’s your favorite food, aside from what you can get at your own place?
Pepe's white clam pizza, obviously.
How did you get started in the food industry? When/how did you know that you wanted to pursue your current career?
Technically my first food industry job was at a donut shop at the beach in my hometown of Old Lyme. I worked there over summers from the age of 14 to 21. I was not a morning person back then, but somehow it made sense to go in to work at 4:30 am and pump jelly and frost donuts, and I loved the moment at 7 am every day when we rolled up the window gates and started serving guests. I didn't think of food as an eventual career then, because everything I heard was that it was too stressful and extremely likely to fail. Both of those things are true.
But after a couple post-college years working in media and freelance writing, I found myself constantly wanting to quit working and start cooking. I've realized that it's worth the stress and the financial risk to feel like I'm crafting something tangible that makes people happy every day, and that I have the opportunity to constantly improve every aspect of my business to make the guest experience better, our supplier and community partnerships stronger, our practices more sustainable and more profitable at the same time. It plays well to my perfectionism and my masochistic tendencies.
What was your favorite eatery in New Haven?
What is your favorite thing about the NY food scene?
The community. Before becoming a part of it I had the image of the restaurant business being hyper-competitive and cutthroat, which is the opposite of who I am. That image couldn't be farther from the truth. When we took over our first space on 7th Street in the East Village, all the restaurants on the block became immediate friends and advisors. We throw events together, cross promote, share contractor recommendations, and help one another out however we can. We've been able to build similar communities in other neighborhoods as we grow. The folks behind bigger and more seasoned companies are always eager to mentor us, and we get to pay it forward by mentoring people who are just getting started in the industry, which is one of my favorite things about the job.
What about the food/drink industry is exciting to you right now?
I see more idealism among the food community than any other for profit industry right now. Consumers are finally connecting the dots between the sourcing and production of their food, their personal health, the strength of their communities, and the sustainability of the environment. They're making better choices, and that allows countless passionate individuals to build food businesses that put values ahead of profits, yet still make money.
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Take risks now! You don't need a lot of money to survive if you're single in your twenties, so now's the time to try something that might not work out...but could just turn out way better than you hoped. Also, stay up late and have fun, cause it gets a lot harder after 30.