Cousins Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac spent much of their formative years—weekends, summers, and holiday breaks—hanging out with family members and enjoying lobster, a staple in the state of Maine.
The two went their separate ways in college, but reconnected years later in Los Angeles. They instantly fell into old habits and were reminded of all those great times they had as kids. But it was more than just reminiscing; the passion for Maine and its lobsters ran deep, and the cousins felt there was opportunity to spread that familial love to the rest of the country.
In 2012, the idea ballooned into a Cousins Maine Lobster food truck in L.A., and not too long after, they found themselves being courted by ABC’s Shark Tank.
“We said no twice, and then eventually, an executive producer called and said, ‘you guys will be making the worst decision of your lives if you don’t do this,’” Jim Tselikis recalls. “So about 2.5 months into business, we were on the set of Shark Tank. We had targeted Barbara [Corcoran], believe it or not, and that is who we eventually did our deal with.”
In the 10 years since, Cousins Maine Lobster has grown to roughly 40 food trucks nationwide and a handful of restaurants, from Maine and Massachusetts to California and Nevada.
Founders: Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac
Headquarters: Portland, Maine
Year Started: 2012
Annual Sales: $54,757,000.00 (in 2021)
Total Units: 36 trucks and 7 brick & mortar restaurants
Franchised Units: 38 Franchised units total (includes trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants)
While the concept is still relatively young, the regulations it abides by to obtain its product are more than 100 years old, says Annie Tselikis, who leads marketing and franchisee engagement. She refers to the Maine lobster business as the “gold standard in sustainability.”
“This industry has been sustainable since before the word was ever a buzzword,” says Annie Tselikis, a 15-year veteran of the Maine lobster industry.
There are roughly 4,500 licensed lobster fishermen in Maine, and the entry/exit procedures are strict. If one wanted to start fishing tomorrow, they would have to undergo a two-year apprentice program with a licensed fisherman, the majority of which would be documented fishing time on the water, in addition to gear work and learning navigation.
After that, they would be eligible for a lobster license, but they would likely sit on a waitlist in most parts of the state for at least 10 years. That’s because the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which manages the fishery, will not let new fishermen into the industry until some come out. And usually, those licenses aren’t given up until someone is in a nursing home or passes away.
“I have friends that have sat on the waitlist for 10 years,” Annie Tselikis says. “That is a big deal.”
Once a person is in the fishery, they start with 300 traps and can add 100 each year until the 800 maximum. In terms of actual lobster, the industry is intently focused on maintaining the next generation. For instance, fishermen return egg-bearing females to the water and mark them with a harmless V-shaped cut on their tails to let others know. This is done, Annie Tselikis explains, because survival of lobster eggs is tight. Looking at the bigger picture, much of Maine’s economy is reliant on sustainable lobster reproduction.
The industry is the backbone of the state, and to emphasize this to franchisees, Cousins Maine Lobster hosts operators and takes them through lobster boats, the processing plant, and distribution system so they gain an appreciation of how it all works.
“They are connected in Raleigh or Houston or Dallas or Los Angeles through this fishery back in Maine because the supply chain is tight and because this is so important for our coast and for our community and our culture and traditions,” Annie Tselikis says. “So we want everybody to know that. We want everybody to be able to tell that story with their customers and we want fishermen to understand the connection that they have to Cousins Maine Lobster. We’re looking at this as a full-value chain and a full relationship from the water all the way through to our food trucks and our restaurants all around the country.”
To efficiently distribute lobster from Maine to the rest of the country, the company works with partners to calculate how many pounds it will need over the course of multiple years, and then breaks that down to quarterly, monthly, and weekly.
Jim Tselikis says product reaches Raleigh and Charlotte the same way it does in Columbus, Ohio, or Pittsburgh. The supply chain ends with franchisees, who typically run their own commissary.
“We make sure that the food is coming to them cooked and prepared the same way, same quality, same specs from our teams so that we can all then ultimately use that in a lobster roll, into a lobster quesadilla, into a lobster taco, so that the experience for the customer is the same every time,” Jim Tselikis says.
By the end of 2022, Cousins Maine Lobster expects 19 openings, including eight new cities. In the first quarter, the brand opened in Austin and San Francisco for the first time, and existing franchisees inked deals to expand in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Tampa, Florida. The chain said in April that it’s looking for further growth in markets such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Orlando, St. Louis, Virginia Beach, and the Pacific Northwest.
Cousins Maine Lobster’s sales increased 37 percent year-over-year in 2021, and Jim Tselikis attributes that growth to the inherent nature of food trucks, which allow customers to spread out. The chain also offers a mobile app, decreasing the number of touchpoints even further. Restaurant growth was stunted by COVID, but Jim Tselikis says they’re on the way back.
“They too are smaller and quick serve,” the co-founder says. “People can grab their food, go to the beach, grab the food, go to the park. Ultimately, it allows people to have an address of ours. So if they don’t want to chase the truck, they know there’s a restaurant, and they can step inside the state of Maine even though they’re in New Jersey or Florida.”
Although Cousins Maine Lobster is experiencing significant growth, the familial culture has remained the same. On the back of company T-shirts is the phrase, “family first,” which Jim Tselikis says is more than a marketing tool.
As the brand expands, it will look for the right markets, but the co-founder believes it’s more important to find better people. He insists Cousins Maine Lobster can teach anyone to run the business; they’ve done it already with doctors, nurses, former stay-at-home moms, and recent college graduates.
It’s a family business through and through, Tselikis says.
“We bring this movement, this brand that was on Shark Tank and the TODAY Show and people really get behind and get excited just like our staff and our team and our franchisees,” Jim Tselikis says. “It’s this big family where people are excited to stand in line for three hours, which I think it’s crazy and I’m very grateful for it. And people at the end of that say, ‘Oh my gosh, whether it’s sunny or rainy or a long line, it was worth it.’ So we want to keep doing that and executing on the truck front and the restaurants.”