Interview with A Cousin: Jim Tselikis of Cousins Maine Lobster

One of the coolest things that happened with Cousins Maine Lobster Launch Week was not just seeing Deb and Greg Keller’s dream of owning a food truck come to life, but the opportunity to meet one of the cousins behind the Cousins Maine Lobster name.  When I first met Jim Tselikis, he looked around the trees surrounding the Kellers house and commented on how close North Carolina reminded him of Maine.  It wasn’t a dense city like L.A. and the nearest palm tree wasn’t within sight.  When the clouds rolled in and the rain came down, he introduced the friends and family cheering on the Kellers and said, “not only did we bring the lobsters from Maine.  We also brought the rain.”  With that everyone laughed and the truck started rolling with the first lobster roll.

Maine Lobster Roll: chilled served with mayo
Maine Lobster Roll: chilled served with mayo
With Cousins Maine Lobster, you are not buying a franchise.  The Cousins Maine Lobster business model refers to it as extending the family.  Because this business started with family.  With Cousins Maine Lobster extending the family into the Triangle, I had an opportunity to ask Jim questions about Maine, operating a food truck, and meeting the Kellers.
Art: What was life like in Maine?

Jim: Life in Maine is laid back, simple and amazing in every sense of the word. When you cross into Maine, you see a sign on 95 that reads “Maine- The Way Life Should Be.” That is what we grew up with. People that care about others, work hard, relax, have fun and respect each other. Maine is a small community, a small state. You can play the name game, just when you know someone is from Maine, and in all likelihood, you will know them too. Beautiful oceans, rocky coast lines, lakes and trees. Amazing snowy winters, ice skating ponds. All four seasons are highlighted in Maine. And of course- LOBSTER. Everything in Maine, with our family and all others, revolved around lobster bakes, lobster shacks, lobster rolls and butter!!

Art: I like how you referenced the Interstate 95 sign.  Being from Florida, my first interaction with Maine was the US 1 sign in Key West referencing Fort Kent, Maine at the other end.  You mentioned the lobster, what make Maine so unique and sought after? 

Jim: Maine lobster is unique because of our cold waters and rocky coasts. Our live lobster products are protected by the rocky bottoms and the cold water temps allow for a product that is healthy, sweet, tender. Direct to the source of our live lobsters, we are confident in the quality and succulent tasted of our live Maine lobsters. Maine is also the only certified sustainable fishery in the world, so we are protecting our product and creating a sustainable industry for the family run businesses and for our customers.

Art: Why expand Cousins Maine Lobster to North Carolina?
Jim: North Carolina, and the Triangle, reminds me a lot of Maine. It is a great community, with amazing camaraderie and networks. There are many New England transplants and avid Shark Tank followers. Further, our Maine lobster was not accessible in an affordable fashion in NC.
Art: Do you have any connections to the area?
Jim: Our mother’s uncle, Uncle Archie, lives in Pinehurst. Our new cousins, Deb and Greg Keller, have been in Wake Forrest for 20 years!
Art: That’s awesome!  Such a small world. What was it like meeting the Kellers?  Do you have any fun stories on your interactions?
Jim: The Kellers are an amazing family and dynamic duo. They are selfless, passionate and business savvy. Deb has a great personality that will do an amazing job scheduling the truck with her extensive network and social skills. Greg has a business mind, that will keep the back intact and efficient. Deb and Greg compliment each other and the business very well. Ultimately, they are family first people, which resonates with us. Watching them interact with their children and parents has been a joy, and you get to know the true persons that they are. That will do wonders for their business and our family feel.
Cousin Jim and Deb - CML Raleigh
Deb Keller and Jim Tselikis at the Cousins Maine Lobster Friends and Family event.
Art: I feel the same way on how they complement each other.  On your successes, when did you feel or know that Cousins Maine Lobster was going to be something? 
Jim: Watching people respond to the product let us know that Cousins Maine Lobster would be a successful business. I have never seen so many people grab our food and have their eyes light up, their phones come out to take pictures, or their mouths water. The product is a 10 and people appreciate not just that, but the brand, our authenticity and our connection to the source. We provide, in so many cities, our sweet Maine lobster that cannot be found anywhere else.
Art: Were you apprehensive that your touches would be lost in extending the Cousins Maine Lobster family?
Jim: Of course there is a concern when you put your brand in other people’s hands. However, our process of identifying the right people has given us great confidence that our brand will be upheld well. If we have the right people at the helm, we feel very confident.
Art: By extending the family to right people, have you learned anything from your new family members?
Jim: We are constantly learning. We never claim to know everything, and every new city has its own unique experiences. We have learned from our family members in other cities that some menu items are more popular. We have learned about new events to target and also about new systems that work well on the line in our truck.
Jim and I before the Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo on May 3rd.
Art: What were some of the struggles you encountered in the food truck industry?
Jim: The largest struggle is being able to keep your truck busy 6-7 days per week. It all comes down to networking, being proactive and booking locations that work well with your food.
Art: Do you have a quote that keeps you focused?
Jim: “If we are prepared, we have nothing to worry about.” With Shark Tank, opening our trucks, starting our franchise business, we always keep ourselves focus and grounded with this line. We feel strongly that when we take on new tasks or business objectives, if we are prepared, we are confident we will do well with it. Preparation is key for everything we do. It is a lot of hard work, time and energy, but it pays off in the end.
Art: Have you thought about a non-mobile restaurant?
Jim: We are always thinking about non-mobile, but the time and location must be right.
Art: What do you like to do on your free time?
Jim: I  love to play hockey, as I played in college. Sabin can be found on a basketball or tennis court. Both of us love to spend time with our families and occasionally share some beers!  (By the way, Jim enjoyed the Scotch Ale by White Street Brewing located in the Keller’s hometown of Wake Forest)
Greg Keller talking to guests before they order.
Art: Finally, what “words of wisdom” do you say to family owners?
Jim: Make sure you can work with your family. Sabin and I took personality assessments to understand where we would work well together, where we make have conflicting ideas, and how to best handle these things. Our personalities balance each other in many ways. Do not let business come between family, ever.
Cousins Maine Lobster is now in Raleigh!
Follow them
Cousins Maine Lobster-RaleighTwitter: 
Instagram: @cmlobsterraleigh/
You can also download the Cousins Maine Lobster app that shows were all the Cousins Maine Lobster trucks are located, their menu, and other information.  You can also find Cousins in: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Napa, and Las Vegas.  They are also coming soon to Atlanta, San Diego, and Sacramento.

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