Career Transitions: From Wall Street to the Restaurant Business
Lucas Holden is a former investment banker, and presently the owner of popular New York eatery Luke's Lobster. Luke's may be a Cinderella story in the city's restaurant scene: In just six months since its inception, the modest establishment has cultivated a loyal following and strong critical praise. The momentum has been so dramatic that plans are already underway to open a second location, way up north in the Upper East Side.
But while the rookie restaurateur may seem like an overnight success, his background in finance suggests that he's no fluke. Even while he was entering the dining business, he kept one foot in the banking business—in the first months of operation, the namesake of Luke's still held his old job in the lucrative (and, as of late, highly controversial) realm of investing. We spoke with Mr. Holden regarding his shift from finance to food, and where the two trades intersect.
VAULT: You've just left a career in investment banking to own and operate your restaurant full time. Which firm did you work for, and what was your position?
Lucas Holden: I was a third-year analyst at CS Capital Advisors (formerly Cohen and Steers Capital Advisors) before leaving to start Luke’s Lobster. The investment banking team specializes in M&A capital-raising and restructuring services principally dedicated to the real estate investment trust (“REIT”) space.
V: Many of our readers are students and graduates seeking careers in finance. Could you describe the path that led you to the profession?
LH:I did my undergrad work at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and I double-majored in finance and small business management. I developed an interest in finance through my coursework, and I decided to pursue investment banking after learning more about the financial service world during summer internships at UBS. During the first semester of my senior year, I went to on-campus investment bank meet and greets, and I decided then that I would prefer to work for a boutique bank over a larger bank. I felt that my personality and strengths would be better suited for a smaller team, and I found more value in working directly with senior-level bankers. I applied to Cohen and Steers Capital Advisors through the career services network at Georgetown.
V: Your departure from finance coincides with a decidedly troubled time for Wall Street. How would you describe the atmosphere around that industry in the time leading up to launching the restaurant venture? Did this lead you to pursue a new career as a restaurateur? Was it always a goal, or an opportunity which came along more unexpectedly?
LH:In December of 2008, Cohen and Steers Capital Advisors decided to buy the investment banking business from Cohen and Steers Capital Management and transition the team to CS Capital Advisors. This transition was during the thick of the financial crisis and I was worried that I would lose my job, so I decided to start thinking about contingency plans. I have always wanted to start and run my own business, but I never would have guessed it would have been in the restaurant world. In the spring of 2009, I brainstormed and then scrapped many business plans before I began to flesh out a business model for Luke’s Lobster. It made so much sense: I’m from Maine, my favorite job of all time was being a lobsterman during summer vacations, and I have a real passion and respect for the Maine lobster industry. Being able to return to that passion while working with my father (we buy all our seafood from his Maine seafood company, Portland Shellfish) was a no brainer. To build out the business model, I met with other restaurateurs, did a ton of market research to evaluate potential competition, and met with brokers to understand the rental market in NYC. Once I convinced myself, family and friends that the Luke’s Lobster concept was a viable business proposition, I started looking for locations and hired Ben Conniff to help with the start-up process. I found the spot in the East Village, at 93 E. 7th Street, in late August and we were open for business by October 1st. That month was hard, especially because the banking hours were ramping up, so it felt like the industry was beginning to rebound. It was not until April 2010 that we decided to open our second restaurant in the Upper East Side and I chose to dedicate 100% of my efforts to the restaurant. Response to the Luke’s Lobster concept has exceeded my highest expectations, so the timing felt right. Though we had a robust pipeline of deals at the bank, I felt, and still feel, that opportunities with the Luke’s Lobster concept are even more promising.
V: Thus far, how have you found the shift from one career to another? Has it been a smooth transition, or have you hit any unexpected bumps in the road?
LH: The transition has been smooth. There are lots of daily challenges to overcome when opening and running restaurants, but these hurdles provide the same kind of stimulation that always excited me as an investment banker. The hours are no different—perhaps even worse!—but I am very happy about my decision, and it’s been a welcome change.
V: Would you ever consider returning to Wall Street in the future, or do you feel comfortable in remaining in the restaurant business?
LH: I’ve only been “away” from Wall Street for a couple of weeks, so it’s hard to say. I loved my job and the people with whom I worked, so I am certainly not opposed to going back to finance in the future. But for now, my focus is on developing the Luke’s Lobster concept.
V: What are the chances that Luke's Lobster might cater lunch at your old firm?
LH:We have already done it. I worked with an incredible team that is supportive of my decision to commit myself to Luke’s Lobster full-time. I have great appreciation for everyone at the CS Capital Advisors team, the experiences they provided me, and the skills I developed there.
V: Finally, what lessons have you come away with after transitioning from one profession to another? How did your background in finance and investing prepare you for starting your own business?
LH: Investment banking strengthens your critical thinking capacity. I really enjoyed working in small-deal teams because it gave me an opportunity to work alongside very smart problem solvers. Learning how to approach and break down enormous projects as effectively and efficiently as possible within a team environment is an extremely important skill set that I learned during my 3-year tenure, and it’s one that I still employ today, just in a different setting.
Luke's Lobster is located at 93 East 7th Street in New York City, and is open every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Sunday through Thursday) and 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. (Friday and Saturday). Local delivery is available. A second location, at 242 East 81st Street in the Upper East Side, is expected to open next month. You may find Luke's online at www.lukeslobster.com, or follow their Twitter, @LukesLobster.
- Posted by Alex Tuttle, Vault.com