Family comes first at Cousins Maine Lobster — where the team actually is family, or just wants everyone to feel like family.
The brand began a decade ago, when Jim Tselikis, who was living in Boston, went to visit his cousin Sabin Lomac in Los Angeles to catch up. “When we were reminiscing,” Tselikis says, “we realized that every time we were with our family, we would have lobster — live lobster, lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese.” Tselikis was in sales and had no prior food or restaurant experience. Lomac had worked in more than 20 restaurants but was in real estate at the time. Nevertheless, they started to imagine a business in which they’d bring their cherished experience to people across the nation.
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Out of that, Cousins Maine Lobster was born. The brand was founded in 2012, landed on Shark Tank (where they scored a deal with Barbara Corcoran), and now serves seafood out of more than 30 trucks and nearly 10 restaurants across 18 states. But as Tselikis says, family still drives this brand.
You guys had never run your own business. How did you start?
It was about getting one food truck off the ground. A major thing was managing money, figuring out what to put into the business to give it a real chance to succeed. It’s also how much you’re going to work for it. Instead of going out on a Friday night to drink beers, it’s dedicating that time to make sure that every piece of your business is fine-tuned, buttoned up, and protected.
As we started franchising, we did everything we could to understand how to succeed here. We were learning an entire new business on top of our food truck business, and that doesn’t happen overnight. You’re not an expert in year one, but you learn so much over time. That’s the biggest piece in all of this. You need to use learning experiences and turn them into potential for the future. That way, when the next round comes, you say, “What did I learn? How am I adjusting?” It’s continuous.
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How has being family-focused impacted the business?
We didn’t go to business school. We just wanted to create a business that would be fun and meaningful. Our theory is, “If we grow with people that we trust that are blood, or as close to blood as possible, they won’t let us down and we won’t let them down, because we’re all in on this mission together.”
When it comes to franchising specifically, we had 2,000 requests after Shark Tank, but we only awarded 10. We wanted to make sure we chose the right people, and we really do call them family members. We chose people that we knew would run a great business, but also people whose lives we would want to learn about. Our relationship with the franchisees is like, “Your son just graduated from high school? Your daughter just got married? Let’s grab a drink and talk about it.” To me, that’s how you build a really strong foundation — when everyone is just invested in each other.
Having now worked with so many franchisees, what advice do you have for others who are thinking about buying a franchise?
To be a franchisee of a brand, you need to buy in — not just literally with your dollars, but also into the fact that this franchisor has done this. They have this model and toolbox and the support to make you successful, and it’s buying into that route versus doing it on your own.
It’s also about having an open mind. We listen to our franchisees. It’s not us versus them. It’s very harmonious. We know we’re not perfect, so if they have an idea, or if they see something out in the field and want to bring it to us, we’re all ears, because we know we can always improve. So if a franchisee comes in and says they don’t know everything, but they’re willing to learn and we can train them, they’ll be successful.
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