TENANTS HARBOR — Normally the opening of a rustic lobster shack doesn't warrant the same kind of buzz as a shiny new Midcoast restaurant, but Luke's at Tenants Harbor, which opened for its first season this summer there, has more to it than meets the eye.
For instance, it's operated by two guys in their early 30s — and it's not just one shack. This is the 19th Luke's shack they've opened nationally.
Native Mainer Luke Holden, its chief executive officer and founder, along with his business partner and president, Ben Conniff, have transformed the empty restaurant on Miller's Wharf into a cozy lobster shack with an adjoining bar.
The locals, let's just say, are very happy. Since Cod End closed there, the building has been sitting empty for two years. Now, there is an easygoing place to gather, where the seafood is affordable and excellently prepared (likely caught by their friends and neighbors). The small bar serves Maine-made microbrews, such as a Lobsterman's Choice Ale made by Shipyard Brewing Co., as well as local wines and good cocktails with Maine distilled liquors, such as Bimini gin.
It all started when Holden, who grew up lobstering with his father in Cape Elizabeth, decided to take a different path in his 20s and set out to be an investment banker in New York City. One hot summer day, he was feeling homesick for a good old-fashioned Maine lobster roll, but couldn't find one. Everything he saw cost at least $30, and either was slathered with too much mayonnaise and celery or else made too precious by chef's artistic interpretation.
"It wasn't fresh, it wasn't authentic and because I couldn't find that there, that became a business plan to get a lobster shack off the ground," he said.
Capitalizing on his investment banking background, he paired up with Conniff, a food writer, opening their first Luke's Lobster in 2009 in NYC's East Village.
Their primary operation is based in Brooklyn with shacks in New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Maryland, Chicago and New Jersey. Over the last seven years, they've grown to include a staff of 350 on the restaurant side and another 125 in their seafood processing plant.
The national press has taken notice. Luke's Lobster has been named "Best Lobster Roll" in multiple publications and food lists and has been covered by Good Morning America, Today, Eater, Forbes Magazine, NY Daily News and Wall Street Journal, to name a few.
But this Tenants Harbor shack, just opened in June, is near and dear to Holden.
"Anywhere in Maine I consider home," he said. "This is the most exceptional view we have from all of our shacks."
"You didn't have to convince me to leave the subways of New York and come up here for a few days," added Conniff.
Luke's Lobster has four core values: Taste, traceability, sustainability and community. And they've been ahead of the curve on these values since day one when it comes to preserving the Maine fisheries and supporting Maine fisherman.
"We've really been proud of being able to bring this sustainable product to New York City and tell people the real story of where their lobster comes from," said Conniff.
More than any of their shacks, this Tenants Harbor shack is unique in its business model. Holden sits on the board of the brand new Tenants Harbor Fisherman's Co-op with more than 15 members who supply all of their catch to his company. In return, he ensures that 50 percent of the restaurant's profits go back to that Co-op.
In addition to running all of the shacks, Holden and his partners, including his brother, Bryan, opened a processing plant in Saco in 2013 called Cape Seafood to ensure none of the catch would be wasted, thus employing lobstermen well beyond the tourist season.
"Staying local is important. It is the heart of what we're doing here," said Holden.
No matter how well a food business is run, its success always comes down to the ingredients and how they are prepared. You won't find a lobster roll smothered in mayonnaise here.
Holden and Conniff make it the way Mainers have been preparing lobster rolls for generations: on a New England split-top bun grilled with a light swipe of mayo, a drizzle of lemon butter, and a dash of Luke's secret seasoning, so that the freshness can come through on its own.
"People are always told to ask where your food comes from," said Conniff. “The way we see it is you shouldn't have to ask; it should be right up front."
To that end, they have a sign outside the main seating area near the ordering window that displays where everything they make is from, from lobster rolls to blueberries, even the butter and herbs comes from a Maine farm or fisherman.
While Holden and Conniff have to go back to their respective offices in Saco and Brooklyn the rest of the summer, they've left the locals with a lobster shack to be proud of.
Luke's at Tenants Harbor is open Memorial Day to Labor Day. They have a happy hour from 3-5 p.m. To learn more visit their Facebook page.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Columns and news about the subculture of Maine lobstering.