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Lobsters Invade New Orleans: How one NTC graduate is bringing New England cuisine to the South

April 10, 2023 11:00 AM
Hunter Jones jjones66@tulane.edu

Joel Griffin (’21) hails from the sleepy beach town of Madison, Connecticut. He grew up eating a variety of New England staples, but one dish stood head and shoulders above the rest: the lobster roll. To his dismay after moving across the country to attend Tulane, Griffin was unable to find lobster rolls anywhere in the city. Spurred on by the lack of this tasty dish and his own entrepreneurial spirit, Griffin took matters into his own hands and launched Joel’s Lobster Rolls in October 2021.

From humble beginnings as a popup tent just off Tulane’s campus, Joel’s Lobster Rolls is now a thriving food truck seen all around the New Orleans area and beyond!

I’m happy that throughout my time at Tulane, I was able to meet so many people from so many different parts of the world and learn from each of them.

Joel Griffin

Newcomb-Tulane College is excited to announce that Joel’s Lobster Rolls will be one of several catering options at this year’s Front Porch Festival! Join us on May 2nd starting at 11am outside in the Mussafer Lawn and Cudd Plaza for delicious free food, unique giveaways, fun games, music, and more!

To help you get even more excited about Front Porch Festival 2023, we sat down with Joel Griffin of Joel’s Lobster Rolls to learn more about his journey from Tulane undergraduate to lobster roll entrepreneur.

How did your time at Tulane prepare you for this career?

Truly, nothing can prepare you for running your own business. The amount of work it requires is unbelievable, and there really are no days off.  This is especially true when you have employees.  They depend on you, and taking a day off and not keeping up with administrative things impacts your crew.

However, Tulane definitely helped with my world view.  I’m happy that throughout my time at Tulane, I was able to meet so many people from so many different parts of the world and learn from each of them.  Had I just known my couple of friends back in Connecticut, then started this business, I’m sure it would fail.  Being exposed to people different than you, and more importantly, working and collaborating with them, is essential in starting a successful business. 

In the land of the crawdad, what made you want to sell lobster?

Lobster rolls are so ubiquitous in New England, I was sure they would do well here.  I always make this comparison: You know how fried chicken is so popular here, they sell it in gas stations?  That’s kind of like how lobster rolls are in the Northeast.  Diners sell them, delis sell them, and even McDonalds sells them during certain parts of the year.  Since food this popular didn’t exist in any capacity in New Orleans, I was confident taking my chances against the crawfish.  After all, lobster is just a better tasting crawfish!

What inspired you to start your own lobster roll food truck business, and how did you get started in the food industry?

Right when I turned 16, I got my first job working at the local clam shack in my hometown.  This was my first exposure to the service industry.  I worked at that restaurant for years, through high school and partly through college.  It was here that I learned how to make a lobster roll, along with other delicious New England classics!  In college, I continued working in the service industry, serving at Shaya and bartending at The Boot.  Pretty funny to think that the service industry is the only industry I’ve worked in, but all of my knowledge and experience in this area helped immensely when starting my business.

I, like many other Tulane students, am from the Northeast, specifically Connecticut.  Lobster rolls are such a common food up there, that I was shocked that New Orleans didn’t have any when I moved down here for school.  Every time I’d go home for a school holiday, one of the first things I would do was treat myself to a roll.  Throughout my time at Tulane, I’d ask local Tulanians if they knew where I could get a lobster roll, and every time, the answer was ‘not in New Orleans.’

After graduating from Tulane, I found myself asking that question again: where can I get a lobster roll?  That was my ah-hah moment.  I realized I couldn’t be the only nostalgic transplant missing their hometown food, and that there was a niche to fill. 

What challenges did you face when starting your business, and how did you overcome them?

Probably the biggest challenge was making the transition from selling lobster rolls to college students outside The Boot to selling them to locals throughout New Orleans.  My first popup was outside The Boot because I knew the market would be full of people like myself: college students from the Northeast craving some good hometown food. Considering that lobster rolls aren’t ‘a thing’ in New Orleans, it also helped that this market would even know what a lobster roll was!

I was comfortable and familiar with setting up outside The Boot, but I knew that if I wanted this business to be sustainable, I couldn’t just rely on the Tulane crowd. I needed to branch out and serve the actual locals of New Orleans.

This was challenging in many aspects.  First, I had nowhere to start.  I was only able to set up outside The Boot because I had personal connections from having worked there throughout undergrad.  Second, many New Orleans locals didn’t know what a lobster roll was. A lot of people thought it was sushi! Third, the price of lobster and lobster rolls. This is an admittedly expensive food, and I still get pushback on the price to this day.

Overcoming the challenges just required persistence and dedication, which is way easier said than done.  I always thought ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ was just an expression, but it turned out to be much more real than I ever expected.  There were some painfully slow weeks that flooded me with self-doubt.  But I was certain that if I just kept going, word would spread, and people would show up.  In the beginning, I didn’t want to spend anything on marketing, so I was only relying on word of mouth and social media.

How do you handle the logistics of running a food truck, such as finding locations to park and navigating regulations and permits?

The logistics can be very overwhelming sometimes. The most stressful thing in this business is not having a place to park and run the truck. There were times near the beginning when I would procrastinate on securing a spot, and the next thing I’d know, I’m scrambling to find a location to sell, with thousands of dollars worth of food that will expire. Now, my calendar is my best friend and I’m usually booked two months into the future. Having consistent locations for the food truck is very important because scheduling is very stressful.

Partnering with a bar is usually how I prefer to do business because it’s mutually beneficial.  I bring my truck and provide food to a bar that doesn’t normally have it, and I bring them drink sales.  For me, I get a clean, professional place to sell my food! Everybody wins.

Securing permits can be challenging, there’s a bunch of red tape. Luckily, New Orleans allows food trucks to park on the street, which is nice, but other nearby parishes don’t allow that, which makes it even more difficult to find a spot for the truck.

What has been the biggest success of your business so far, and what do you attribute that success to?

The biggest success was purchasing my food truck.  During the first 11 months of running my business, I was just working out of a little popup tent with camping equipment.  It was extremely taxing, both physically and mentally.  I feel like I aged
11 years in 11 months.  Unloading the equipment each day, essentially building a
mini kitchen from scratch on the sidewalk in the New Orleans weather... I’m much happier now in the food truck.

The reason why I stuck with the tent for so long is that I didn’t want to overextend myself. I had no idea how New Orleans would respond to lobster rolls.  The last thing I wanted to do was sink 50k-100k into a food truck, then have it fall flat on its face.  The popup tent was a proof of concept of sorts.  I told myself I’d only buy a food truck if the popup model worked well. I wanted to be sure I was going into the food truck with a solid following that could help me afford the higher overhead.

What advice would you give to Tulane students who are interested in starting their own food truck business?

Don’t buy a food truck at the very beginning!  Start as a popup first to test the market and see if people even like your food.  Food trucks are really expensive, both upfront and with ongoing maintenance costs.

Also, make sure your food is differentiated.  Make sure nobody in town is doing what you’re doing.  Personally, I would never start a burger food truck.  While your burger may be the best burger in the world, it’s going to take a very long time for people to know that.  People already have their favorite burger place. Changing people’s food habits is a lot harder than making new habits. By default, I’m already everyone’s favorite lobster roll in NOLA!

Any plans for taking the food truck concept to a brick & mortar operation?

Nope!  I like being able to serve different parts of the city/state with the food truck, and you can’t really take a building to all the different local festivals.