Restaurant dreamers are a dime a dozen, but getting the dollars to go from idea to reality (and profitability) can present insurmountable hurdles. Startups often cobble together cash by borrowing from friends and family and maxing out credit cards, but once that first food truck or brick-and-mortar location gets off the ground, what’s next? Over the last few years, some hopefuls have gone the “Shark Tank” route—the TV show where entrepreneurs come to pitch ideas for all kinds of business. Several budding restaurateurs were able to convince one or more Sharks to invest in their concepts and partner with them for growth. Here are their strategies and stories—including one that succeeded despite a no-go from the Sharks.
1. Cousins Maine Lobster: Practice your pitch
Maine natives and cousins Sabin Lomac and Jim Tselikis launched Cousins Maine Lobster as a single food truck in Los Angeles in 2012, serving lobster rolls—a specialty along the New England coast. Authenticity and sustainability were the craveability points they pitched to the Sharks in 2013, including a direct connection to a Maine lobster supplier who could guarantee fresh product delivered to California within 24 hours. The pair watched all four seasons of “Shark Tank” to prepare and practiced fielding questions before they came on the show—resulting in a $55,000 investment from Barbara Corcoran to expand their fleet of trucks. Corcoran’s marketing savvy and media connections helped spread the word, and the business took off. The company now has 20 trucks, including the newest in Nashville and San Antonio, and sales have reached $20 million, according to Cousins’ website. In an interview with Business Insider, Corcoran said that Lomac and Tselikis made the best pitch she had ever seen.
2. Tom + Chee: Do the math
Founders Drew Quackenbush and Corey Ward launched Tom + Chee, a grilled cheese and tomato soup concept, by investing $2,400 in a tent and a griddle, then setting up shop next to a Cincinnati skating rink. A year later, they had earned enough money to open one brick-and-mortar store in Cincinnati, offering unique items like a grilled cheese doughnut. Eventually, they opened a second store and sold one franchise, and gross annual sales climbed to $1.5 million. So when the duo came on “Shark Tank,” they could back up their pitch with some solid numbers—something the Sharks are understandably picky about. What Quackenbush and Ward wanted was an investment of $600,000 to expand the franchising side of the business. Shark Barbara Corcoran took the bait, offering the money and her expertise in scouting out real estate deals. Since the show aired in 2013, Tom + Chee has expanded to 19 locations and claims to have 170 stores under contract.
3. Chi’lantro: Persistence pays
Korean barbecue concept Chi’lantro, which built its reputation on its signature kimchee fries, also had something of a track record when founder Jae Kim appeared before the Sharks. Although he had applied a couple of times before, he finally got his chance in late 2016 when Chi’lantro was pretty well-established. In six years, he had grown Chi'lantro from a lone food truck to a four-unit fast casual in Austin, Texas, complete with a catering arm and kimchee facility. Barbara Corcoran liked that growth and agreed to invest $600,000 for a 20% stake in the restaurant company. Kim, who told the Sharks his sales should reach $6 million this year, plans to open a fifth location in Austin and expand into Houston in 2017. The cash infusion is earmarked for expansion outside Texas.
4. Big Shake’s Hot Chicken: The one that got away?
Shawn Davis, who goes by the name “Chef Big Shake,” came on “Shark Tank” in 2011 looking for $200,000 to get his shrimp burgers into wider retail distribution. The Sharks passed on the deal, but deep-pocketed angel investors were watching the show and Davis’s appearance generated interest and dollars. Gradually, he was able to get the shrimp burgers into 15 supermarket chains in 2,000 outlets across 26 states. Annual revenue hit $5 million, and Shark Mark Cuban admitted in an interview that passing on Chef Big Shake was a mistake. At the time, Davis wasn’t thinking of launching a restaurant concept, but in 2014, he used some of his profits to open Big Shake’s Hot Chicken in Franklin, Tenn.—jumping in early on the Nashville hot chicken trend. Able to procure more venture capital, he aims to grow the fast-casual chain in 2017, although an indictment for tax evasion late in 2016 may hamper his plans.