By Sabin Lomac & Jim Tselikis
At the NWFA Wood Flooring Expo in Tampa, Cousins Maine Lobster owners, Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac, will be featured at the Opening General Session. The duo are renowned entrepreneurs, growing their small food truck startup to a national franchise. Featured on ABC’s hit TV show “Shark Tank,” they know a thing or two about small business success. The team will sit on a panel and offer guidance to three aspiring entrepreneurs as they pitch industry-related business ideas onstage. Read on to learn more about their experiences in developing and expanding their business, working with family, building a great team, and how giving back is at the core of their business success.
Being from Maine never leaves you. No matter where you move to, or where your career takes you, that sense of identity and place remains at your very core. There’s a different pace and a different way of life in Maine, that comes out every opportunity it has – how you treat people, how you handle business, and the value you place on family and friends.
In 2011, I visited my cousin, Sabin, in Los Angeles, where he had moved five years prior. Naturally, we reminisced on the topic of our childhood in Maine – the warm summer days in the backyard, with family and neighbors crowded around big boiling pots of lobster. We would sit at a picnic table stuffed to the gills with neighborhood kids, plastic bibs tied haphazardly around our necks and our fingers drenched in warm butter that ran down to our elbows as we picked and ate steaming hot lobster.
There was a sense of community and a sense of celebration in the air that existed on these otherwise normal days, simply because of the inherent traditions surrounding lobster and Maine. “Can’t get Maine lobster out here” we thought, snapping back to our Los Angeles reality. Los Angeles didn’t have traditional Maine lobster. They didn’t have split top New England style rolls. If you could find a lobster roll, it’d be chopped up with so much mayo and celery and other condiments you could barely taste the lobster. Los Angeles is such an iconic city with an important culinary tradition, but it was in dire need of someone showing them what a real lobster roll was.
Around this time, something was happening in Los Angeles – a phenomenon where everywhere you looked, food trucks were popping up serving esoteric high-quality dishes street-side. People would seek them out, looking for a new culinary experience or tradition, or an inventive take on something they already knew. The thought came naturally – could we serve authentic Maine lobster, 3,000 miles away from the source, to the West Coast masses out of a food truck in Los Angeles? The logistics were mind boggling. The risks were real. But there was one thing we were sure of – the product would be fantastic.
Within a year, we had pooled our assets and purchased a food truck, with one goal in mind – serving authentic lobster rolls featuring only the highest quality, wild-caught, sustainably harvested lobster from Maine, at an accessible and affordable price. And you know what? We were a hit. Word of mouth, along with a little bit of advertising and social media, drew lines of more than 60 people at our first service. Angelinos raved about their first experience with Maine lobster, and transplanted New Englanders celebrated our authenticity – we were familiar, we inspired nostalgia, we were a taste of home.
“Can’t get Maine lobster out here” had suddenly become “I can’t believe I can get Maine lobster out here.”
Within days of our opening, we were offered an opportunity to be on ABC’s Shark Tank. We had an amazing product, we had a viable market, and now, we saw the opportunity of having investment capital to grow our business. For months, we prepared our pitch, role-playing different Sharks questioning our sales activity, our revenue projections, and our vendor relationships. We became proficient in our ability to verbalize our competitive advantages, taking great pleasure in quickly pouncing on each other’s stutters or hesitations, like Rocky mercilessly pounding that frozen slab of meat.
Ultimately, our hard work and preparation paid off. By the time we finished filming, we had partnered with our Shark of choice, Barbara Corcoran, to the tune of a $55,000 investment for a 15 percent stake in our business. Her impact was felt immediately, helping us secure the national spotlight and brand visibility. We booked appearances on
“The Today Show,” “The Chew,” and “Good Morning America,” one truck became two, and suddenly we were introduced to a new word that would change our lives forever: “Franchising.”
By summer 2018, we will have food trucks in 21 cities across the U.S., including new operations in Freehold, New Jersey, Charlotte, North Carolina, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We will also have six of our newly franchised brick and mortar sit-down restaurants open and serving authentic Maine lobster to unique neighborhoods in places like Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, and St. Pete/Clearwater Beach and Neptune Beach, Florida. We’ve also expanded internationally with a brick and mortar in Taichung, Taiwan, with plans for more on the way.
Internally, we’ve surrounded ourselves with focused and determined individuals who share common and unique goals. We’ve franchised with dedicated hard-working operators, truly some of the best people in the world. People we are proud to now call our family. We’ve built and maintained relationships within the Maine lobster industry that help maintain the highest quality and accessibility of our product. We care deeply about our customers’ satisfaction, and to this day, we still will personally attend to any feedback that demands our attention. We put great pride in always being accountable, and never compromising our product.
Every day presents new challenges and new goals. We’re careful with setting goals – it’s great to have perspective on where we want to be, but relishing in accomplishment can also breed stagnation. We keep a different goal in mind, and that is to be better each and every day. We want yesterday’s failures to be today’s successes, and today’s successes to pale in comparison to tomorrow’s.
There’s no secret to innovating or being an entrepreneur. You’re wading into unknown waters, so at times, you’ll have no idea what you’re doing. But make it something you love, something you’re passionate about, and you’ll make yourself do it well. Loving what you do is the best feeling in the world. You’ll still have to bust your tail, but you’ll wake up every day wanting to.