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Ben Conniff Of Luke’s Lobster On Safely Supporting Suppliers

Focusing on essential principles when the pandemic reduces a massive operation to just one location.

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Ben Conniff is co-founder and chief marketing officer of Luke’s Lobster, an international chain of lobster and seafood restaurants that opened its first location in New York in 2009.

Going back a few weeks, I was in San Francisco after having flown out for Expo West, and landed to find that it was canceled. I went to our restaurant in San Francisco. On that Thursday, the first Thursday of March, we were packed and busy and everything was normal. That night, they announced there were 50 cases of coronavirus in the Bay Area and people should work from home. The next day, it was a total ghost town.

I think at that point we realized we were going to be in some pretty big trouble if this pandemic spread. The next week was frantically trying to figure out what to do, and the week after that we had no choice but to lay off the vast majority of our team, both in our shacks and also in our headquarters. We really looked at it as we either have to do this now, or we won’t have anything for people to come back to when COVID-19 subsides. That included everybody taking pay cuts or being furloughed, including our family members. So it was extremely difficult.

That left a few of us to sort of choke through this and be creative and reimagine our business every day to figure out how to be relevant and how to keep buying lobster, selling lobster, and keeping the lights on where we can.

Initially, most of our locations were closed, but some stayed open. We started to pivot towards our DIY lobster roll kits, which give you all the ingredients but allow you to make the kit in the comfort of your own home at your leisure. We’ve also packaged our menu items into more of a grocery feel, where you can now get lobster meat, crab, and shrimp by the half pound and bring it home. We’re sharing recipes on our website and on social media to try to get people thinking about how to brighten up their cooking with our seafood. Then we donated a bunch of rolls to frontline healthcare workers in each of our cities. And we’ve also been out there asking our guests to buy additional donations so we can still feed that frontline.

After this Friday, we’ll be down to only Portland open in terms of our restaurants. We closed all of New York after Sunday, and we’re closing the rest after this Friday, just because it seems like these cities are peaking or soon going to be peaking, and safety-wise we just wanted our teams to stay home.

Portland is still doing delivery and pickup. We just feel like there’s more space and oxygen up here and there’s fewer cases, so it doesn’t feel as scary as some of our other cities. That said, we are working on migrating our hospital donations for those other cities onto our e-commerce platform. So what we’re going to do is offer people the ability to order DIY lobster roll kits that the doctors and nurses can take home from their shifts. People can buy them online, and we’ll ship directly to hospitals so that we can still support the same people, even with the restaurants closed.

Supporting healthcare workers has been a great morale booster for the team. It’s been great to get some sales in the door from generous customers who want to donate. We’ll start with what we can give, and then we’ll add in more as our guests call in additional donation orders. We’ll compile those together. We have a bunch of different contacts at hospitals and will send them out once we have a critical mass.

It was good to see all the delivery companies rapidly figure out a contactless format. We’ve added more channels. We have always been hesitant to take on the whole delivery tree and be on every channel, but in this time where our only sales are delivery sales, we needed to be in as many places or we could be.

The other big thing that we’ve done is set up an entire web shop to sell lobster meat, lobster tails, live lobster, and our other ingredients direct to consumers around the country. We probably had an 18-month plan to set up an e-commerce business, and that became more like a five-day plan. Everyone here is concerned about making sure there are people to buy the lobster so that the lobstermen can go out and fish. And it’s also finding more ways to preserve the company so that everybody can come back and be home when this passes.

We’re now buying fresh dayboat scallops from our fisherman, because the Gulf of Maine scallop season just opened. We’re providing an online portal to sell those so they can keep fishing. And same with their live lobster. We’re continuing to try to find new products that our fishermen can sell and that we can bring to the rest of the country through the online portal, and keep hat business flowing for them.

Everyone is nervous, but it’s been really productive because we have such a transparent relationship with the stakeholders. That’s how we’ve always operated. When we go to them, we tell it like it is and we answer their questions honestly. They’re all aware that we’re in a very tough place right now, that we don’t have our team, and that what’s going to be happening with the restaurants remains to be seen based on the arc of this virus. They appreciate that we’re trying to be nimble with things like e-commerce, and that we’re trying to bring on more grocery partners, and we’re doing everything that we can to get their products out there. They appreciate that, and they understand the predicament that we’re in because we’ve been an open book about how our business works.

There’s so much for a very small team to accomplish, to try to take the next step and shore up one more thing. We’re constantly going from one thing to the next. There’s certainly not a lot of time to fret about things. There’s just no time to wallow. Being able to help others when we’re in such a dire time ourselves really lightens the load and helps us feel better about the situation we’re all in. To be generous, and to see other people’s generosity, and to see everybody in the restaurant industry—a lot of suppliers and service providers—looking to help and to reduce costs where necessary to share those resources. It’s been very heartening to see the community, and the B Corp community that we are part of as well, come together. That’s what keeps me buoyed, being in touch with our teams and knowing that we have a very clear thing that we’re working for right now, which is the survival of the business, the place where we can grow again after all this.