From Wooden Traps to Selling Lobsters Online: Finding Lessons and Resilience in Maine’s Fishing Heritage
Luke Holden is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Luke’s Lobster.
Like all of us, each morning over these past few weeks I’ve woken up to an endless barrage of bad news, followed by days of impossible decisions. Which of our Luke’s Lobster shacks can stay open, which teammates do we lay off? How long can we survive? The business I’ve built over the past ten years is an extension of my family, part of a heritage that is deeply woven into Maine’s 200-year history, and my own lineage. With the COVID-19 pandemic, I am regularly faced with challenges I could not have predicted even a few short weeks ago. Throughout these days, I lean into the history of my own family and an industry that has persevered through the Great Depression, two world wars, and countless challenges. Fishermen—and Mainers—are self-reliant, resourceful and, in the end, optimistic. These will be the qualities that buoy us and carry us through.
My grandfather, Richard, was the first Holden to haul lobster traps. Fishing was his summer job through high school in the late 1930s before he joined the Air Force during World War II. When he returned, he attended Bowdoin College on the GI Bill, but by then fishing was in his blood, and every summer found him hauling his lobster gear on Casco Bay, first as a job, then as a hobby.
As one of six kids, my father, Jeff, grew up eating lobster and fish from these trips, and as soon as he reached high school he followed in my grandfather’s wake. He was a sternman fishing out of Custom House Wharf on summer breaks from Cheverus. When he graduated, he took the job full time, and in 1974 he built a boat and started hauling 600 traps of his own. Over time, my father opened a fish and lobster market at the top of Munjoy Hill, and then he got the first-ever lobster-processing license in the state of Maine, operating plants on Commercial Street in spaces now occupied by Scales, Ri Ra, and Flatbread Company. Over the years Dad’s businesses saw plenty of ups and downs. The collapsing scallop, urchin, and shrimp fisheries over the past several decades created pivotal moments for my father that I watched him manage. I remember bank trouble in the early 90s when the real estate market collapsed. That too was challenging. He has been by my side every day these recent weeks and is helping me take the long view on matters, drawing on his experience in the fishing industry and his endless sense of humor in the bleakest moments.
This is how I remember my childhood summers: bluebird days, the smell of herring, and the taste of salt air. Some days were flat and calm, others the seas were choppy and roiled my guts. But fishing with my dad and grandfather was always just right. Just like them, I grew up fishing every chance I got. Lobster was our meat and potatoes—when times are tough in a lobstering family, you eat more lobster, not less. Not long ago, in the midst of one of the harder days I’ve had, a message from my wife, Laisee, read “Luke, don’t worry about the economy, everyone here loves lobster.” It made me smile and think back to all the ways the industry has shaped who I am.
During my senior year in high school I built my own cabin skiff. I painted it bright blue—the color of a bluebird sky. In those years, I was hand-hauling 150 traps with my youngest brother, Mike, as my sternman in the summer. I bucked the family trend by going away to school in Washington, D.C., but returned each summer to get back on the water. I flirted briefly with the finance industry, taking internships and ultimately a job in New York City, but it wasn’t long before I found my way back to the fishing industry. In 2009, homesick for Maine and the taste of a sweet, shoreside lobster roll, I opened the first Luke’s Lobster, a tiny lobster shack reminiscent of the lobster shacks I loved growing up, in Manhattan’s East Village. Other than knowing what a good lobster roll tasted like, my qualifications for running a restaurant were nil, but experience has always been the best teacher.
We are now fighting every day for our industry. We have laid off hundreds of employees in recent weeks, and we are doing our best to manage the business through this storm. We launched an online platform offering a variety of our seafood products, an initiative we hope can create demand for lobster. Of critical importance to us, and to the lobster fishing industry, is creating consumer demand for lobster and an easy way for customers to access it. When the lobstering season comes into full swing later this spring, we need to be there as buyers for our fishermen. Innovation and ingenuity in marketing and selling products through new means are key for Maine’s lobster-fishing industry now.
My best days are still when I smell the salt air and bait fish. As the spring turns toward summer, I look forward to taking my own daughters, Poppy, 2, and Banks, 6 months, out on a bluebird day to haul a few traps and teach them the resilience and fortitude of our fishermen that will see Maine through these times.