Sunday, April 20, 2014
Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac are jumping from the lobster tank into the shark tank.
The two young entrepreneurs from Maine will be wading into dangerous waters on Friday, when they make an appearance on the popular ABC show "Shark Tank" to try to get funding and a billionaire business partner for their Los Angeles-based food truck venture, Cousins Maine Lobster.
The show, which airs at 8 p.m., throws everyday people with interesting ideas into a room with five rich investors who quiz them on their businesses and then decide whether or not to invest in them.
Whether the sharks bite or not, Tselikis and Lomac are using their episode as a platform to launch the next phase of their food truck business: A Maine-based online company that will sell lobster and gourmet lobster dishes, such as lobster mac and cheese and lobster pot pie, nationwide.
The food for the company is being made in Maine, and will be shipped out of a distribution plant in Biddeford that will initially employ about 40 people, depending on the season.
The appearance on "Shark Tank," Tselikis said, is "not just branding Cousins Maine Lobster, it's branding Maine lobster and the Maine lobster industry."
Tselikis, 28, and Lomac, 31, are cousins who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough. They opened their food truck, serving a variety of dishes using Maine lobster and other Maine foods, in Los Angeles in late April. But before they had even served their first lobster roll, the sharks came swimming around, asking them in an email if they'd like to be on the show.
"Generally speaking, there's about 20,000 to 25,000 applicants (for the show) in a season, and they go to open castings and try to get on," Tselikis said. "But ('Shark Tank' producers) reach out to about 60 companies, and we were one of them."
Producers had seen a piece on Urban Daddy, an email magazine, about the L.A. food truck. Tselikis and Lomac have since opened a brick-and-mortar extension of the business in Pasadena, Calif., as well.
Tselikis was already a fan of "Shark Tank," so he knew a little of what to expect.
"We weren't in it for the money, we were in it to give up as little of our company as possible in terms of equity," he said. "What we really wanted was to have a partner who would help us hit the national market."
"Shark Tank" had almost 6 million viewers last season, and this season it's the No. 1 Friday-night show among adult viewers ages 18 to 49.
The show features five wealthy investors who listen to pitches from entrepreneurs and then quiz them, sometimes brutally.
Tselikis said they aren't allowed to reveal the specifics of what they asked the sharks for, or the results of the show. "I can say that we had a wonderful experience," he said.
Insert long, meaningful pause here.
Another hint: One of the photos released to promote the episode has the two men giddily making a Barbara Corcoran "sandwich." Those kinds of big hugs usually come on the show only when shark and bait have struck some kind of tasty deal.
In preparation for the airing of the episode, Tselikis and Lomac have revamped their website, cousinsmainelobster.com, and established a distribution center in Biddeford for online sales. They plan to add more lobster trucks in California, Tselikis said, "but our big goal and push is the online distribution."
A Maine chef (Tselikis won't say who) "perfected" their recipes for the online venture, and they had Mainers critique them.
Tselikis and Lomac buy all their lobster meat in Maine. They won't reveal their supplier, because the deal they have with the supplier allows them to sell their lobster rolls in L.A. for just $12.50, lower than prices at a lot of East Coast restaurants. Tselikis would only say it is a single source in "southern Maine, south of Portland."
The two entrepreneurs will be watching "Shark Tank" on Friday at The Portland Regency, along with 150 family, friends, politicians and people who work in the lobster industry. (Tselikis' sister is a member of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.) Lomac said he's proud the show will bring more attention to his home state and the struggling lobster industry.
"The best lobster comes from Maine," he said. "If this (show) brings more attention to it, then it just ups the demand for everyone, whether they're buying it from us or anyone else."