Ian MacGregor grew up around lobster and the restaurant industry. His parents, Rod and Joan MacGregor, founded The Lobster Place in 1974 as an offshoot of a restaurant they ran on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Stories of Rod’s lobster boat adventures in the early days of The Lobster Place inspired Ian to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. After 4 years of patrolling the waters and another year working in Washington, DC, Ian decided to pursue a career that could keep him closer to family and friends. With his Coast Guard experience fresh in his mind, Ian took over The Lobster Place as President in May of 2002.
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
To be clear, we’re not in the culinary industry per se. What we do is much broader than that – we’re a wholesaler/processor/distributor of fresh, live, and frozen seafood; a specialty seafoor retailer; and a restaurant operator. I took the business over from my father who retired 13 years ago. I was leaving active duty military service and jumped at the opportunity to lead and manage the great organization my father had built starting in the 70’s.
Tell us about The Lobster Place. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
My dad started The Lobster Place in 1974. He was co-owner/operator of a restaurant on the Upper West Side with his brothers and he wanted a business of his own. Our family had always vacationed in Maine going back to the ‘50’s and they so identified with the rugged, simple sensibilities of Maine life that my dad wanted to import them to New York any way he could – and The Lobster Place was born. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to bring live lobster down into the city and he quickly developed a pretty good following because of the novelty of his product. I was fortunate to get involved with the business just as the cultural relevance of food was really gaining strength and we’ve been able evolve the lobster place concept significantly as a result. I think the pervasive desire of consumers to be more connected with their food and how it gets to them fits very well with our unique capabilities as a processor, distributor, retailer, and restaurant operator. Because of that, I want The Lobster Place to continue to evolve its retail businesses in a way that’s compelling to the consumer while using our influence as major purchaser of fish to effect positive change on the industry.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to The Lobster Place's success?
The single most important “Strategy” that we’ve ever executed was taking a risk on Chelsea Market in the 90’s. My dad had the vision to open a retail business in what was a pretty rough neighborhood without any idea that Chelsea and Chelsea Market would evolve into what it has now become. We’ve tried to continue that vision by keeping in tune with what our customer wants while paying close attention to the evolution of the environment around us. For example, when the Highline was becoming a reality, our neighboring wholesalers were terrified that the increased pedestrian traffic would strangle their ability to run what were then industrial businesses in the Chelsea neighborhood. They were right – but we saw that as an opportunity. So we moved our wholesale business to the Bronx and expanded our retail and restaurant into the footprint it left behind. You have to be in tune with what you can control and what you can’t – and try to leverage that to the best of your ability.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I think people want to know and be connected to where their food comes from. These days we’re all so connected to technology, social media, etc., that I think people have started to rally around food because it can still be a very visceral, tactile experience. We use the fact that the breadth of our businesses brings us extremely close to the source to deliver a very authentic and satisfying experience.
I don’t think I can boil my life and the way I try to lead it down to a single motto. A few guiding principles that have served me well are to be direct, honest, and transparent; to be tough and demanding but also compassionate; and to live up to the commitments I make – even when doing so is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Your greatest success as Proprietor of The Lobster Place? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
My greatest success as Proprietor of The Lobster Place is creating a workplace where my people are respected and where they take pride and ownership in the work they do. We have 243 people on staff and with rare exception, I think they feel like they’re part of something special as part of our team. I think that they know their contributions are valued and we empower them with uncommon levels of responsibility. As far as difficult moments, they happen every day and I couldn’t possibly isolate just one. I will say that overcoming big obstacles helps keep things in perspective. Time after time, when we’ve come up against something that seems insurmountable we’ve figured out a way to land on our feet. That’s very re-assuring when crisis inevitably presents itself.
Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?
As much as you may believe that you’re are an artist, remember you’re a business-person who has employees who depend on you, investors that have bet on you, and vendors who are lending you money to run your business. You have a responsibility to all of those stakeholders to be a professional. That means that you’ve got to attack the mundane – accounting processes, books and records, food safety, taxes, etc. – with the same vigor that you attack designing your restaurant and developing your menu.
Describe the ideal experience at The Lobster Place.
Coming into our market in the morning – say around 11 before it gets to crowded – perusing our fresh fish display, selecting 2 or 3 kinds of fish that just look awesome, and taking them home to make a fantastic meal. We make all sorts of great dishes at Cull & Pistol and The Lobster Place that are truly unique – but our roots are as a retailer of fresh fish. I think you can get a much better appreciation for our on-premise dining options when you’ve seen firsthand in your own kitchen how superior our ingredients are.
How important are architecture/design to the success of The Lobster Place?
They’re very important – but for different reasons than you might think. In Cull & Pistol, like any restaurant, an important part of what the consumer experiences is the ambiance. But in our store, we’re merchandizing, preparing, and cooking an incredible assortment of seafood items on an unparalleled scale. So in that environment, function is just as important as form. I think we’ve done a good job of keeping those sometimes competing imperatives in balance.
Most popular dishes/drinks and your favorites?
We sell a ton of lobster rolls, steamed lobster, oysters, sushi, and keg beer. I don’t have a favorite per se – but I eat something from the store or restaurant every day that I’m there and I take something home just as often.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Probably red wine and #1 Grade Yellowfin Tuna.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I have a 4 year old and 2 year old so pleasure reading is not really in my repertoire these days.
Role model - business and personal?
My father. He’s an honest business man and the best role model as a husband and father that I could imagine. When I took over the business I was always struck by how many people – customers, vendors, and employees – went out of their way to tell me what a good man he is.
Favorite travel destination?
Maine. My parents live there now on Sebago Lake – no place on earth I'd rather be.
What's next for The Lobster Place?
We’re building a new 30,000 square foot processing and distribution facility in Hunts Point. Hopefully this will open sometime in early ’16. With that in place, the groundwork is laid for us to go in a lot of new directions (and locations) with The Lobster Place and Cull & Pistol.
Ian’s transition to operating The Lobster Place was smooth, as he had seen first-hand the hard work endured by fishermen, and he gained appreciation for the product he was now bringing to market. Ultimately, Ian’s experiences at sea formed the foundation for his approach to business: respect your product and understand the supply chain, treat vendors fairly, value and recognize great employees and build business relationships based on trust and integrity.
Ian entered business school shortly after taking over The Lobster Place and received an MBA from New York University in 2006. Under Ian’s supervision, The Lobster Place has grown to become one of New York’s leading food companies. Today he employs over 200 people across three interconnected businesses – The Lobster Place Wholesale Seafood, a Bronx-based purveyor to over 450 restaurants, caterers and hotels across the New York metropolitan area; The Lobster Place Seafood Market, a unique seafood store located in Chelsea Market; and Cull and Pistol Oyster Bar, a seafood restaurant adjacent to The Lobster Place that opened in 2013 to critical acclaim. As Ian looks to the future, he’s excited about continued success and new opportunities for The Lobster Place.