Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multi-Million-Dollar Business, by founders Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis, officially hit shelves as of last Tuesday. The Scope Weekly previously interviewed Cousins Maine Lobster’s founders and their shark Barbara Corcoran about their food truck seafood enterprise. This time we spoke in a phone interview with Lomac and Tselikis on their motivations for telling their story in a book, as well as their process realizing it, and how motivational stories can be beneficial in the current climate.
Cousins Maine Lobster is a nationwide, soon-to-be international food chain specializing in Maine-style seafood cuisine. The idea was sparked when cousins Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis opened a food truck in Southern California in 2012, hoping to break even selling lobster rolls. On the first day, when Lomac saw the anticipatory line of Los Angelinos, he knew they had started something special. “We didn’t have any grand expectations for the business in general,” he told The Scope Weekly. “This was more of a passion project than anything else, the goal being able to sell thirty to forty lobster rolls a day. But literally in the first hour, I remember going ‘oh crap, this is going to be big.’ And I was saying to Jim repeatedly, ‘when are you going to move down here’?”
Finding Success with the Shark Tank
The cousins would be the first to tell you they didn’t expect to be getting a call shortly afterward from the Shark Tank panel. After capturing the attention of investor and veteran businesswoman Barbara Corcoran, Cousins Maine Lobster took off and never looked back, its net worth rocketing from twenty thousand to twenty million. Despite the success, though, it’s clear Lomac and Tselikis haven’t gotten lost in the clouds, nor have forgotten where they came from. Naturally, as such, the concept of writing a book never occurred to them independently. “We weren’t seeking out extra publicity,” Tselikis told The Scope Weekly, “we were just concerned with growing our franchise.” However, when the opportunity presented itself, he and Lomac found themselves eager to adapt their story.
“When we decided we finally were going to write the book, it was important that it wouldn’t be just a piece of marketing propaganda. We wanted something that could really impact and resonate with people,” Tselikis said. “We’ve learned over time that we’re very relatable because we’re not yet the Mark Cubans of the world. And so people that are budding entrepreneurs, or are in the grind, can really associate with us. It was an opportunity to take it beyond just some conversations in the truck with five or ten people, and tell everyone our story with important aspects and lessons that we wish we had known.”
Paying It Forward
Lomac concurred, “It was a great way for us to give you a bit of a cheat sheet of what we did well and what we didn’t do well. Some of the things we didn’t do well are really obvious and embarrassing mistakes. We’re very transparent about that. But there are a lot of things we did do, very well. So the idea is to give back some of that knowledge, so as to help people like us out there, and to motivate them. Our message is, if we can do it, you can do it. Take the risk, and start that project you’ve been thinking about.”
He went on to add, “I think now, more than ever, we need stories like this to be shared. Not anything necessarily feels good, but something that’s real. Like a story about kids who didn’t go to business school, who didn’t come from wealth, and didn’t get any special treatment. Stories about people who aren’t hesitant to pursue their dreams. I think right now that’s what you need more of, especially with what’s going on in the news every single day.”
Tselikis notes another winning factor to the book is the message it has for entrepreneurs and small businesses. “It’s notable because we ourselves are a private, family-owned business in corporate America,” he stated. “I think that’s something people would be interested in and could respond to hearing about. Because when family is involved, there is a bigger light at the end of the tunnel. You’re able to create your own destiny, whereas you’d be micromanaged working in the corporate world.”
Once a Mainer, Always a Mainer
Recounting the steps taken in their journey proved to be a wholesome if surreal experience. “It was pretty nostalgic,” Sabin commented. “Reliving the highs and the lows one page at a time was a feeling I never had before.”
“When it comes to describing our roots in Maine, a lot of people said they experienced it like our home state was a character in the book,” Tselikis added. “Sitting back and reading it myself provided an opportunity to see how true that was, not just when it comes to our business, but when it comes to our aesthetic and family ties. It really allowed us to recreate our childhoods, which I think are unique to growing up in Maine, and really influence what we do.”
From Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multi-Million Dollar Business by Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac. Copyright © 2018 by the authors and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Cousins Maine Lobster had opened for business only a few months earlier. April 27, 2012, was not what those in the restaurant world would call a “soft opening.” It was more like jumping from a perfectly good airplane, ten thousand feet in the air, without a parachute. The night before, we still didn’t have the truck or the lobster meat. We picked up both the next morning and cruised to our first stop that day—only to learn that we had forgotten the register. Just to make things even more interesting, none of our eight employees had ever stepped foot on a food truck or knew how to make a lobster roll. We weren’t even sure how the grill worked.
When we finally arrived at the location—thirty minutes late—we saw a large crowd. What a lucky break! We were going to set up shop right next to all these people. It was only when we parked and jumped out of the truck that we learned this wasn’t just some random mob. They were our customers. Once we realized this our spirits instantly sank. We had already committed one of the cardinal sins in the food world: we had kept our customers waiting.
In a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do: make it up. While our truck employees read the manual for turning on the grill, the two of us grabbed some fresh lobster meat and mingled with the crowd. We hadn’t planned on giving out free samples that day, but we also knew that many of those waiting had never had genuine Maine lobster. It’d be like giving out free flutes of Dom Pérignon. Californians appreciate quality product and they certainly know their seafood. But Maine lobster is in a class all its own. Even those in line who had tasted it before had probably had it at a fancy restaurant where they paid fifty bucks for a one-and-a-half-pound lobster. Here we were, giving the stuff out for free—and you better believe they ponied up a few bucks for little bit more. We had planned on hitting another stop that day but never made it. When our lobster meat ran out at the first stop, we had to call it a day—an exhausting, frustrating, yet rewarding day.
Looking back, we had done a thousand things wrong. Add them all up and there’s no reason why we should ever have made it to day two. But as naïve as we might have been about the rigors of the food truck business, we have never been wrong about our product. And the thing is, we don’t produce it, we don’t grow it, and we don’t even fish it out of the ocean ourselves.
But we respect it. More than that, we respect what it represents and what it means to others, because we know what it means to us. If you want to know the secret to our success, you can stop reading now. Respect for Maine lobster is our secret. But Maine lobster is so much more than a seafloor crustacean. That delicious animal might be what we sell, but it’s more than what’s on the plate—which is damn good!
We didn’t have all of this figured out that first day as clearly as we do now. Back then, we were just two cousins from Maine who thought that Southern Californians might like a taste of home—a lobster roll. (They do.) Since then, we’ve come to learn and appreciate just what it is we sell. We’ve always known it was special, but now we know why. We think you should know why, too, either because you love our product as much as we do, or because you want to achieve your entrepreneurial dreams yourself. We wrote this book for both types of reader.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a more pressing question to answer: What on earth were all those people doing there waiting for us?
The night before our opening day, the LA branch of the lifestyle site UrbanDaddy.com had come across a picture we posted on Twitter announcing the new Cousins Maine Lobster. The picture showed the two of us as little kids with our grandfather on a rocky Maine beach. It might seem strange that we announced our company to the world with a family picture that didn’t show a truck, a lobster roll, or even a lobster. It just showed us, with our grandfather, having a uniquely Maine moment. But that’s what we wanted to sell: a uniquely Maine moment. Our chosen medium—the channel through which our customers would experience this moment—happened to be the lobster roll. At its heart, however, we wanted people to experience if only briefly, a bit of our cherished memories growing up as Mainers.
That was the idea, anyway. We had no idea if anyone would get it. But UrbanDaddy reposted the picture, along with our planned location the next day, and something happened. It struck a chord with those who saw it. We were lucky that UrbanDaddy gave us the best free publicity we could’ve asked for, but we wonder now if the response would’ve been the same if we had posted a lobster or some other generic picture. Those who saw it saw something authentic. Or maybe they just wanted lobster rolls . . . .
In any case, it did the trick and we had our first sold-out day. Not long after that, we got a call from Shark Tank.
And the rest, as they say, is food truck history.