When you want quality Maine lobster cooked just like they do in Maine, then Cousins Maine Lobster is where you need to go! Co-owners Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac turned one simple food truck into a multimillion-dollar business and aren’t stopping any time soon. In just six years, they’ve transformed their one food truck into a household name, serving up the best Maine lobster you’ve ever tasted outside of Maine.
Total Food Service caught up with the Cousins Maine Lobster duo to talk about their beginnings, and what led to their success!
Can you give us a little bit of background as to how Cousins Maine Lobster came about?
Jim: We started the business in 2012. Prior to that, I was working in Boston, MA, selling medical devices for the orthopedic industry. Sabin was selling real estate in Los Angeles. We are both from Maine and grew up with our families being super close, hence the term “cousins” in the name. We would do everything together. I went to college at Holy Cross in Boston and Sabin went to Hofstra University in New York. He was a bit older than me so he was out in the world before me. We lost touch for a couple of years after college. I was in Boston, while Sabin was in New York for a while before moving to L.A.
I took my first trip to L.A. ever in 2011 and visited Sabin. We caught up and that’s when we came up with the idea to bring a bit of home to the world via Cousins Maine Lobster. We both wanted to work for ourselves and we came up with the idea to serve lobster rolls like the ones we had growing up in Maine. We wanted to have the best lobster in the world and figured we do it with a food truck and then just get our name out there. It was really only a passion project and it certainly evolved into something more.
So Cousins Maine Lobster all started with just one food truck, right?
Jim: Yes, it started with one food truck on April 27 2012. We just literally said we’re going to serve and we’re only going to use the best lobster. We’re not going to deviate from that ever. We’re going to have our brand of Maine lobster. It was going to be something we were passionate about while staying in our day jobs. Sabin would stay in real estate in L.A., while I’d be in between Maine and Boston, working on the production and fulfillment and logistics.
But then we got a call from Shark Tank and three months later we were shooting the show and it aired in October of that year. We actually said no twice because it was in the first few weeks that we were in business. We didn’t know what we wanted and where we wanted to go yet. Finally, one of the executive producers called us. So on the third time we said yes.
So who selected you on the show?
Sabin: Barbara Corcoran, who’s obviously known as a real estate mogul and marketing genius in New York, got us. It was a crazy, fun and exciting ride. We’ve gone from a food truck to eight restaurants in six and a half years. We also have 31 food trucks in 21 different cities. We also have an international presence with food trucks and a restaurant in Taiwan. Our current trajectory is to continue to open more restaurants. We’re just careful and selective as to who we work with in the location that we open. And you know, we’re having fun. It’s still work, but we’ve met some really amazing people across the country.
Would you say that you’re in two different businesses with the food trucks and restaurants, or is it the same thing essentially?
Sabin: I didn’t know that there are two vastly different entities. I mean, you know, there are different intricacies, which is obviously selecting the best real estate for a restaurant. The benefit of a food truck is you get to go to different locations every day. But aside from that I think we found it very similar in that it has a fantastic offering, which in our case we believe we have the best Maine lobster in the world. They’re both about just treating people really well giving them a slice of Maine, a slice of home where we enjoyed our childhood. And I’m doing it in a really fun creative way whether it is at a fast casual restaurant or it’s a food truck. You know suddenly we’ve made it accessible and we’ve made it an affordable luxury.
Is the setup the same for both the Cousins Maine Lobster food trucks and restaurants in terms of employees?
Jim: We have anywhere from two to four employees in the trucks, and the restaurants are fully staffed.
Are all the units franchised?
Jim: No, not all of them. We have three food trucks here in L.A. that are corporate owned. We also have a restaurant here. Then there’s a corporate-owned food truck in San Diego and a food truck in Portland, Maine.
Talk a bit about the franchises… When did you want to do it? Who did you want to bring in?
Sadin: It was Barbara’s idea to franchise, so we worked with various different consultants and consulting groups to further educate ourselves on the process. We are very selective about the kind of people we wanted to allow in our family and represent our brand because it’s a huge undertaking for us. A lot of trust goes into a franchise. In terms of who we look for, we stay away form those who are in it only for the money. You know investors and people who just want to capitalize on the opportunity. We want people who want to represent the brand and are humble. We really want to forge great relationships with them. We’ve been lucky enough to accomplish that. I’d say the majority of our conversations are now about personal things and catching up as opposed to just business. That was our intention and it worked out really well.
When it comes to your sourcing, do you do it all yourself, or do you use a broadline distributor like Sysco?
Jim: I want to be very clear, all of the seafood products that we use at Cousins Maine Lobster are locally sourced from Maine, not from broadliners. Lobster is the core of our business so we have partnered with companies back home. We have all our lobstermen dropping off live catch at our stations. Then all of our lobster meat is cooked and prepared in Maine and then shipped and distributed to whatever city.
How do you guys create the Cousins Maine Lobster menu?
Jim: When we started, we basically said we wanted people to taste the quality of our lobster. We saw our mothers picking lobster out of the rolls just to eat it when we were kids. We wanted to replicate that whole idea of just picking out and eating steamed lobster. We wanted something in its purest form. We try not to mix it with a bunch of chive, mayo, herbs, or anything else. So our lobster rolls have kebabs of meat in them and little of anything else. We also have other great items like lobster tacos, lobster grilled cheese and the like. In terms of the creation of the menu, it’s done here with our team in L.A. We test our new items and then roll them out through the different cities when they’re approved.
What finally led to the decision to come to New York?
Jim: It was a long process because we needed to find the right franchise partner for such a phenomenal market. We could have a great market and no so great candidates and we won’t do it. We found great owners in New York. They have experience in the food industry in New York and are the best people ever.
Nice. What about from a price standpoint when you look at the cost of operating?
Sabin: I personally think it’s a bit low, but on average it’s about $15. I think that we really try to make Lobster an affordable luxury. We want people to come in and enjoy our food and spread the word about Cousins Maine Lobster.
To learn more about Cousins Maine Lobster and founders Jim Tselikis & Sabin Lomac, or visit any of their locations, check out their website.