Summers Catch

Cousins Maine Lobster rolls in Boston for a special homecoming.

Text by Robert Cocuzzo

Back in 2012, if you were looking for Jim Tselikis, you could find him just about any night of the week huddled behind a laptop in a coffee shop in the North End of Boston. The Maine native and Holy Cross grad was selling medical devices by day and cooking up a serious side hustle by night. He and his cousin Sabin Lomac had dreams of rolling out a food truck that would specialize in the delicious lobster rolls that had been a staple of their childhoods growing up in Portland, Maine.

The concept was simple, yet novel: Bring fresh, succulent lobster rolls from Maine to Los Angeles. The cousins retrofitted an old Cape Cod Potato Chips truck on the West Coast. Manning the truck themselves, Jim and Sabin launched Cousins Maine Lobster on the last weekend of April 2012. Hundreds of people waited in line to get an authentic taste of Maine. The launch was so successful that the cousins also caught the attention of the producers of ABC’s Shark Tank and were invited to appear on the show. The next thing Jim and Sabin knew, they were inking a deal with Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran, who kicked their fledgling food truck business into overdrive.

Forty trucks later, Cousins Maine Lobster is a global franchise in sixteen states from coast to coast and on two continents. They have brick-and-mortar locations in cities from Hollywood to Nashville to Times Square to as far away as Taiwan. The cousins themselves have appeared on everything from Good Morning America to the Today , while superstars like Mariah Carey, Alex Rodriguez and former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers have all dined at their trucks. The cousins have even written a critically acclaimed book, Cousins Maine Lobster: How One Food Truck Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business. Most recently, Cousins Maine Lobster is working on locations as far off as Saudi Arabia. Yet of all the new and unlikely frontiers that Jim and Sabin have cast their traps, one special place has eluded them until now.

This spring, the very first Boston-based Cousin Maine Lobster truck took to the streets. “It’s really a homecoming for us,” says Jim, who never could have dreamt of this level of success when he was back in that coffee shop in the North End nearly a decade ago. “I’m from Maine, but I really consider Boston to be my home. I’ve been wanting to come back since we started the business.” Although it has taken nearly a decade to get up and running in Massachusetts, it has not been for a lack of interest. Jim and Sabin were approached by a slew of people eager to franchise the business in Boston, but none of them met the cousins’ criteria, especially for such a meaningful location. “We really look for the best franchisees to add to our team, and I don’t say that lightly,” Jim says. “So until we met Todd and his family, it really didn’t make sense.”

Medway, Massachusetts, resident Todd Nelson brought all the right ingredients to the table. After a stint working in restaurants after college, Todd bootstrapped an impressive career franchising businesses. Today, he is a partner in the largest Valvoline Instant Oil Change franchise in the country, operating over two hundred locations coast to coast. “As my three kids were getting older, I realized that they had the same entrepreneurial gene,” Todd says. “But they wanted to get into their own businesses, so we spent the last couple years looking for franchises to become a part of.” One Sunday evening, Todd flipped on the television and happened to catch an episode of Shark Tank featuring Cousins Maine Lobster. “I’ve literally only watched Shark Tank two or three times in my life, and I just happened to stumble onto this episode,” he says. “They have fantastic food, branding, public relations and an outstanding team. We discussed it as a family and decided this was the right opportunity for us.”

Todd reached out to the cousins and they hit it off immediately. “Todd is a businessman and has an immense amount of experience in franchising, which was important to us, but that’s not the only reason we wanted to work with him,” Jim says. “The biggest part truly is that we want to spend quality time with our franchisees. We want to be able to call them up and jib jab. The foundation of our business is built on great relationships with good people who care and do the right thing. Todd and his family certainly exemplify that.”

Indeed, Todd’s undeniable family focus, which is a cornerstone of Cousins Maine Lobster, is perhaps what best qualifies him for the coveted Boston franchise. While Todd and his wife, Irene, are helping to get their first truck up and running, they see the future of the Cousins Maine Lobster operation in Massachusetts to be in the hands of their children Tara, Tori and TJ. Twenty-five-year-old Tara will run the business’s day-to-day operations as general manager. After graduating with a marketing degree from Boston University, Tara worked in the marketing department of Valvoline Instant Oil Change. Her twenty-six-year-old sister Tori is a registered dietician and will work on the truck as well as schedule and coordinate events. Lastly, their twenty-year-old brother TJ is pursuing a business degree at Bentley University and will work in the business part-time throughout school and will hit the ground running after graduation.

The entire family spent time training at Cousins Maine Lobster’s headquarters in Los Angeles, as well as up in Maine where Jim says the most important education takes place. Every franchisee climbs aboard a lobster boat to become intimately aware of every aspect of the business. “You have to meet our lobstermen, haul a lobster trap and see how hard it is to catch this product,” Jim explains. “You need to see how if you catch ten lobsters, you may only keep one. You need to see the quality of the live product, where we source it from, how it’s processed and turned into the lobster meat that we send to all of our cities.”

Cousins Maine Lobster is committed to only using the best product—period. No matter how the price fluctuates, Jim attests, Cousins Maine Lobster strictly sources the top lobster meat and best ingredients. This commitment has not only given them a sterling reputation among everyone who tastes their rolls, but also a deep appreciation from the lobstermen they work with. “We know a lot of the lobstermen from playing sports with them as kids or just by growing up in a small town in Maine,” Jim says. “We’re a privately owned family business and we’re proud to be supporting privately owned businesses back in Maine. They’re literally the hands that feed us.”

Today, Todd and his family’s gleaming, high-tech, uber-clean Cousins Maine Lobster truck is up and running. They will be hitting dozens of locations around the city, from breweries to ball packs, beachfronts to street corners. “We don’t plan to plop down in one location and sit there for seven days,” Todd says. Their daily route can be tracked on a brand new app available at CousinsMaineLobster.com, and the truck can also be booked for private parties. Todd and family have big dreams for expanding Cousins Maine Lobster in Massachusetts. “We didn’t get into this to run one truck,” he says. “We want to scale to multiple trucks, storefronts and food halls.” And this is music to Jim’s ears, as he’s been eager to have a footprint big enough in Boston to warrant his return to the city he loves most. “I talk about it all the time,” he says. “I’ve wanted to get back since the day we started.” Now thanks to the help of the Nelson family, Cousins Maine Lobster is finally lowering their traps in Massachusetts. Who knows what they’ll haul up next!

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