Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business

Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business

by Jim Tselikis, Sabin Lomac

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250122179
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 267,884
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JIM TSELIKIS and SABIN LOMAC are cousins and co-founders of Cousins Maine Lobster. They grew up on the coast of Maine surrounded by family and lobster. They both moved away (Jim to The College of the Holy Cross and eventually orthopedics; Sabin to New York City to study drama before acting his way into a career in Real Estate in LA), then reunited in 2012 to bring the authentic experience of their childhoods to their customers.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Where Our Story Begins

The day we entered the Tank, Cousins Maine Lobster had a single food truck that earned around $100,000 a month in sales. Four years later, our company consists of twenty-one food trucks in thirteen cities, a restaurant in West Hollywood, and an online retail business, all of which has earned over $20 million in sales. We expect to get ten new trucks on the street this year, plan to open more restaurants, and are ready to expand internationally.

Since our initial episode aired on October 19, 2012, we've been featured in four follow-up Shark Tank episodes (more than any other contestants), have made the rounds on The Chew, The Today Show, and The Queen Latifah Show, and have been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, Food & Wine Magazine, and Saveur Magazine. We've also had the number one lobster roll as voted by Tasting Table for three years in a row — a streak we have every intention of continuing. More important, in 2013, our success allowed us to create Cousins for a Cause, a nonprofit organization that has partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles to help build awareness and raise money for that amazing foundation.

Not bad for a couple of guys with no formal business training.

So what did we have? Two things: we had passion and we had a story. We wrote this book to tell you about both, because we want you to know that it's all possible. Your dreams. Your idea. Your business. You don't need all that much to make these things happen — but you do need passion and a story. Imagine yourself as one of the sharks in the Tank that day, and in walk two guys who ask you to invest in a food truck. A food truck! Yes, those jalopy diesel monsters that hang out outside corporate offices and clog traffic. What a wonderful business opportunity!

You would ask if we had any start-up experience. Our answer: no.

You would ask if we had any franchising experience. Our answer: no.

You would ask if we had any food or restaurant experience. Our answer: no.

Now, give us your money!

Yet that's exactly what we did. We asked for someone to give us money so that we could buy another food truck, because one wasn't enough. Someone did, because she understood, as you must understand, that when it comes to starting a successful business only a couple things matter: passion and story. (Having crazy-delicious lobster rolls helps ...) We're living proof that it doesn't matter what industry you're in, or how nutty your idea is: if you approach your business with passion — a meaningful connection to a great idea — then you will learn what you need to know. We certainly did. Passion isn't about waking up one day and deciding to open a business or make some quick cash by throwing something against the wall to see if it sticks. You become an entrepreneur because you see how your passion or connection to something could make you able to offer a truly great product or unique service.

Money? Yes, money is important for all the obvious reasons. We each invested about $25,000 of our own money before making a dime. But we didn't start Cousins Maine Lobster to make money — or, put another way, we didn't start it to only make money. So, why did we start it? We'll get to that later. For now, you need to decide what kind of entrepreneur you want to be. There are several different types of entrepreneur, but we'll stick with just two. One type, the type we are, has a passion for that one thing — that one idea, that one product, that one service. To achieve that one thing, they pour their heart and soul into it. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't. But for this type of entrepreneur, the passion is the product and there is no endgame. We don't have an exit strategy for Cousins Maine Lobster. We have found the one job that we each want to do for the rest of our lives. Doing this one thing makes us happy and that's what we value: doing something that makes us happy.

For another type of entrepreneur, money is the passion. They build businesses to sell them and make money. Maybe it's a one-off, get-rich-quick scheme. Or maybe they just enjoy starting something new. We tip our Bruins caps to those who have a seemingly endless reservoir of great ideas that attract investment money. And while we've expanded Cousins Maine Lobster beyond the food truck, we're not get-rich-quick guys. We have no intention of selling our business or moving on to another business. Cousins Maine Lobster is our business. Now, entrepreneurs in this category aren't any better or worse than the type we are, but this book isn't for them.

We're not here to tell you how to make a billion dollars by selling your app idea — because we have no idea how to do that. We hope you earn the type of money that makes you happy, but we don't guarantee it. We're not here to show you how to retire at thirty or forty or fifty — because for us, work is the juice. We love what we do: we don't want to retire. And we're certainly not here to show you how to make more money by working less — in fact, just the opposite. If you follow what we say here, you'll work harder than you ever have in your life. As the cliché goes, if you're following your passion, it won't feel like work at all. (This is mostly true, but damn, some days are very long.)

We're here to tell you how we turned our passion — our story — into something greater than ourselves. It doesn't get any simpler than this: if we could do it, then so can you. There's nothing all that unique about us. We're not geniuses. We did pretty well at our old day jobs, but it's not like we were in the C-suite. We're not marketing gurus, sales ninjas, or Six Sigma black belts. We're just two guys who decided to serve lobster rolls from a food truck.

It may not sound like much, but there's passion there. There's a story, too. We hope ours will inspire yours.

OUR STORY IS MAINE

Our story begins in America's first frontier. In many ways, Maine remains a frontier. While all the river valleys have been mapped, many remain untamed, in the same condition that the Native Americans found them when they called this land home. Mainers continue to hug the coast, the source of all community and wealth in a state short on both. To understand our story, you must first understand this unique place. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it: you must understand it better than you do now. You will probably never truly understand it. We don't. We both grew up in Maine and yet we are considered relative newcomers. If you packed your things and moved there tomorrow, don't expect to be welcomed as a Mainer. It takes more than a driver's license. In fact, it takes more than a generation or two to be considered a native. Try six or seven generations. There are families in Maine who can trace their ancestors to the original Scotch-Irish settlers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries — long before the United States, and just barely after the very idea of New England as a geographic region, with its own culture and sense of self.

The fact is that Maine has never been an easy place to call home. But that's what makes it so damn unique — and extremely frustrating to those who come here to do business. And it's always been that way. Which isn't to say that Maine is all that much different from where you're from. It has its unique history and place in Americana, just like your hometown. But there's a twist with Maine. Whether it's the geography, climate, or people, those who come to Maine unprepared are in for a big surprise.

The first company in Maine, known as the Plymouth Company, had no clue what it was doing. We suppose a lot of companies start like that: a bit overwhelmed, a bit unsure, and all too prone to making mistakes. Forget thriving: the best a start-up can do in those first few days is survive. It was certainly that way for us, as it was for the 124 colonists aboard the two ships of the Plymouth Company of England, which arrived on the Maine coast in 1607. Before them stretched a beautiful but mostly unexplored frontier of opportunity and danger. They thought they were ready. We did, too, when we entered a different — and yes, far less dangerous — frontier. We were both wrong. Fortunately, that's where the similarities end.

This wasn't the first time the English shareholding company had tried to establish a permanent presence in Maine. The previous year, the company captain got lost on the voyage over. Like, really lost. He ended up in the Caribbean, where he and his crew were captured by pirates. The interesting thing about that expedition is that, had they landed anywhere from Florida to Nova Scotia and built a settlement, then it would have been the first English settlement in America. But the Jamestown, Virginia, settlers beat them to it.

Undeterred, the head of the Plymouth Company, one Sir Ferdinando Gorges, somehow convinced his investors to throw good money after bad and quickly organized a second voyage. This time the ships made it to Maine, which must have been a moral victory for all involved. But they probably would've been better off had they just turned around. Apparently, the colonists only had a vague sense of Maine's geography and climate, because they built their trading fort at the head of the Kennebec River. We're only slightly exaggerating when we say that any other spot on the Maine coast would've been preferable. The tides turned the colonists' harbor into a mudflat for half the day, while the winter winds pummeled the little community without mercy. Welcome to Maine. Mistake number one.

Mistake number two was the newcomers' mistreatment of the local Native American tribes, particularly the Mawooshen Wabanakis. This was problematic for two reasons. First, the company's entire business model depended on making a profit through trade with the locals. So, pissing them off was the same as pissing off their customers. Second, when you find yourself in a strange land, far from home, facing your first Maine winter, making friends with those who've lived there for thousands of years would be a pretty good idea. At least, don't kidnap or kill any of them. Guess what the colonists did? You have to wonder if they regretted that mistake when they were chewing bark in the middle of January ...

The third and final mistake was the colonists' ignorance of the true potential of Maine, which wasn't what could be mined, farmed, or hunted on land. The colonists had just come from Europe, where famines were frequent and meat was rare and expensive. You could say that there was a pretty decent business opportunity for the company that discovered a limitless supply of easily procured protein. And it's not like the colonists were unaware of the swarms of lobster and groundfish just off the Maine coast. According to historian Colin Woodard, a good fisherman in those days could pull up 350 to 400 cod a day.

Although just as plentiful, lobster wasn't a viable option back then, because there was no way to transport it without refrigeration. As we've discovered, lobster spoils extremely fast even under the best conditions, which the seventeenth-century colonists certainly didn't have. Lobster would have its day, but not yet. Which left cod, as Woodard writes:

Cod ... was nearly perfect. Properly dried and salted, codfish would keep for many months. It was relatively light and easy to transport and, since salt cod was a cheap source of animal protein, there was an insatiable demand for it in the markets of Europe.

But the little settlement at the mouth of the Kennebec wasn't there to fish. They were there to build a trading empire for the Plymouth Company, one fur and one beaver pelt at a time. The empire didn't last a year. Starving, freezing, and wholly wretched, the colonists decided that their first winter in Maine would be their last and sailed back to England in the spring of 1608.1

We can sympathize. Maine is a gorgeous, almost idyllic location ... in the summer. By the winter, we're not unhappy that we've chosen sunny Southern California as our home away from home. We get back, every few months, to see family and do some business. Maine's place in our hearts has never been in doubt. But when we embarked on this journey together, we didn't realize how intimately our childhood home would haunt our every decision. When we look at any business opportunity, we ask ourselves two questions. First, does the opportunity get us to where we want to be long-term? Second, does the opportunity reflect well on Maine? In other words, by pursuing this opportunity are we doing right by those in Maine whose values, ethics, hard work, and support have allowed us to be successful?

We must answer yes to both questions before moving ahead. We respect Maine as much as we respect our lobster and our customers. It is part of our story. Heck, we even put it in our name! Which is why we wanted to tell the story of the Plymouth Company, because for us, the fate of that first company in Maine is a cautionary tale for all businesses that seek to capitalize on what our home has to offer.

Those first settlers to Maine weren't necessarily bad people, but they didn't respect the land or its inhabitants. They brought their own ideas about how things should work to a place where things had been working quite well for thousands of years. Is it any surprise that life proved unbearable to them? Likewise, we aren't the first guys who have had the bright idea of bringing Maine lobster to the masses, taking it out of the fancy restaurants and serving it up the way we ate it as kids, the way all Mainers eat it — on a paper plate, fresh from the pot, with a sprinkle of lemon and butter.

But those other guys brought their own ideas to how things should be done, rather than adapting their methods to Maine. And when things got rough, they chose to split and leave their suppliers — the fishermen and the communities who rely on what's pulled up from the sea — behind. Now, the Wabanaki Indians were probably happy to see the Plymouth Company settlers hightail it back to England. But when outsiders bolt from their Maine suppliers today, it's the suppliers and all who rely on them who get hurt.

For this reason, the Maine lobster industry is very cautious about who it does business with. They've been burned one too many times. Other Americans look at Maine's skepticism of outsiders as an eccentric, perhaps slightly arrogant trait. But this skepticism has been born from hundreds of years of dealing with greedy, exploitative outsiders whose only interest in Maine, its people, and its waters has been what they can take. It was that way between the first English settlers and the Wabanaki and other Indian tribes who called the Maine coast home thousands of years before Columbus. It was that way when the first Scotch-Irish settlers were lured to Maine with promises of free plots of land only to be told later that they owed rent to some Massachusetts land baron who had bought a piece of paper. And it was that way when the groundfish industry collapsed in the mid-twentieth century and thousands of Maine fishermen, their families, and their communities watched helplessly as the great fish companies closed or moved away.

Maine today isn't what the English settlers found when they built that first fort at the head of the Kennebec River. And yet it's remarkable how little has changed. These days, there aren't any settlers, there are only natives, the ones whose connection to Maine, its people and its land, go back generations. Maine's economy has grown beyond what swims or scurries along the floor of the ocean, and yet it's amazing how dependent every coastal community is on lobster.

And it's this one product, the lobster, which has come to symbolize all that is great, unique, and precious about our home. We are now part of that story. When our trucks pull up at stops in Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, or Houston, we don't want our customers to just see Cousins Maine Lobster; we want them to see Maine. We want them to see the story of a state whose history has been lived out along a rocky, inhospitable, but stunningly beautiful coast. We want them to see the generations of Mainers who have lived and died by what they pulled from the ocean floor. We want them to see a way of life that, with minor differences, has remained more or less the same since before America's founding.

That's how we see ourselves. Arrogant? No, aspirational. Cousins Maine Lobster is but one very small piece of Maine's story, but we cherish even that little bit. This connection with something larger than ourselves — larger than a fleet of trucks or a restaurant or a television show — reminds us that our passion continues to drive this business. It reminds us of where we came from, how far we've come, and where we want to go.

That's how our story begins. How does yours begin?

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Cousins Maine Lobster"
by .
Copyright © 2018 James Tselikis and Sabin Lomac.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Barbara Corcoran

Introduction: It Almost Didn’t Happen

Part 1: Two Cousins and a Truck

Chapter 1: Where Our Story Begins

Chapter 2: A Memory of Jim’s Backyard

Chapter 3: Questions and Answers

Chapter 4: The Maine Way

Chapter 5: Out of the Tank

Part 2: Two Cousins and a Company

Chapter 6: Finding Your Purpose

Chapter 7: Franchising, in Focus

Chapter 8: The Immovable Lobster Truck

Chapter 9: The Weight of Success

Part 3: Two Cousins and a Brand

Chapter 10: Built to Last

Chapter 11: The Joy of Giving Back

Chapter 12: The Life of an Entrepreneur

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