Cousins Maine Lobster's 'Shark Tank' success story: How lobster-truck guys turned $20,000 into $20 million

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cousins Maine Lobster
Maine natives Sabin Lomac, 35 and Jim Tselikis, 32 started Cousins Maine Lobster as a single food truck in Los Angeles in April of 2012, serving up authentic, sustainable lobster rolls. After an appearance on "Shark Tank" that netted the duo a $55,000 investment from Barbara Corcoran, Cousins took off. The business has seen exponential growth, and now has 20 trucks nation-wide and a fast-casual restaurant in Los Angeles. It anticipates 10 new trucks on the streets for 2017 and has plans for international expansion. Earlier in 2016, Cousins Maine Lobster reached $20 million in sales. Its two newest cities, Nashville and San Antonio, are seeing record-breaking crowds, and the brand is on track to serve over half a million customers in 2016.
It all started with a simple idea
My cousin Sabin left Maine for Southern California in 2006 to explore acting career. He loved his new home, but when I came to visit him in 2011, I could tell he felt nostalgic for Maine. We talked about growing up just outside of Portland. We reminisced about trips to the beach, jumping off docks behind ferries to ride the propulsion, and island hopping in Casco Bay during the summer. We eventually arrived at the topic of food and discussed the iconic staple of Maine "" lobster.
We agreed that the Maine lobster experience was an institution and California was missing out. Maine lobster was about cracking open a bright red lobster at a picnic table packed with family and friends, making a delicious mess, sharing and enjoying the bounty of the cold water you just swam in, caught by a family friend a few hours earlier. We knew there was an opportunity to bring this experience to the West Coast!
What happened next
Our Maine love-fest eventually grew into Cousins Maine Lobster, a business that would bring the best of Maine seafood out to Los Angeles where lobster was typically viewed as a pricey delicacy, only served in precious portions at fancy restaurants. Within a year, we had pooled our assets (about $20,000) and bought a food truck. We wanted to give Los Angeles customers that Maine lobster shack experience on the West Coast. We set out to provide fresh Maine seafood with the lofty goal of "Shore to Door" in 24 hours or less. Our signature lobster roll would be served the same way as they were back home; split top rolls, a little butter, and heaping portions of lobster meat.
Through word of mouth, advertising and social media, our opening day in April of 2012 drew a 60-person line, wrapping around the block. East Coast transplants raved about the authenticity, freshness and the copious amount of meat in the lobster rolls. Word spread quickly, garnering local news coverage and within days of our opening we were offered a spot on ABC's "Shark Tank."

'Shark Tank' changed everything
Sabin and I spent the eight weeks before our "Shark Tank" appearance practicing our pitch, reviewing our finances, and coming up with valuations for Cousins Maine Lobster. We spent hours poking holes in each other's responses, calling out stutters, talking during answers, yelling, and distracting each other in any way possible. We watched endless episodes of the show, studying each investor's questions we would likely need to answer under the glare of stage lights.The day of the filming arrived and we were fed to the Sharks. For almost an hour, we were peppered with questions about our sales activity, vendor relationships, competitive advantages, revenue projections and profitability. After failing to answer Mark Cuban in a timely fashion, the billionaire investor bluntly told us he was out of the bidding because of our lack of attention. The sweat poured down our backs as we negotiated our equity sale with Barbara Corcoran and Robert Herjavec. When the segment ended, it was the Barbara who ultimately joined the Cousins Maine Lobster business and helped us launch CML 2.0. She invested $55,000 for 15 percent of the business.
What it's like working with Barbara Corcoran
Barbara's influence on the company was felt from day one. We were able to grow our fleet (one truck became two, which soon became four), and the roving lobster shacks were canvassing Southern California in a few months. Through Barbara's connections, Cousins Maine Lobster grabbed the national spotlight with appearances on "Good Morning America," "The Today Show," "Master Chef," The Food Network, "The Chew," "Katie Couric" and QVC to name a few. Our relationship with Barbara went way beyond the short segment on TV, becoming a true, long-term partnership.
The key ingredients of our successToday,
Cousins Maine Lobster has 20 food trucks in 13 locations throughout the country, a restaurant in West Hollywood, California, and an online distribution that sells CML meals anywhere in the U.S. The success of the company can be attributed to a number of factors. Sabin and I are lucky to have a great staff that truly cares about the business. Our relationships with the vendors and lobstermen back home have helped maintain the highest level of quality and timeliness while managing orders and inventory. When mistakes are made, we are accountable. We care deeply about customer satisfaction and will personally attend to any negative feedback. It's that level of commitment that helps ensure a great customer experience.
Cousins for a cause
Before the CML years, Sabin was a directionless teen with no father figure at home and often found himself at odds with authority. After a period of destructive behavior that was leading him down the wrong path, Sabin's mom, Jeannie, signed him up for Big Brother Big Sister. From there, Sabin's trajectory changed completely when he was paired with his "Big" Stephen. He finally had a positive male role model in his life.There are many boys today who are not reaching their potential because of a lack of guidance as they navigate the challenges of growing up. As Sabin learned, all it takes is the time and effort to listen and care to change the direction of a young man's life. That's why in 2013 Sabin and I formed Cousins For A Cause, a non-profit entity whose goal is to give back to the communities that they serve in and help grow the awareness of "family" and "service" throughout the country. 
Cousins For A Cause partners with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) in Los Angeles to help raise money, resources and awareness for BBBS. CML would not exist today if Sabin had not had the mentorship he received through BBBS, which is why we continue to emphasize the importance of mentorship and giving back. Sabin recently was recognized as "Big Brother of the Year" nationally by the organization, and I have been a Big Brother for almost 2 years now.

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