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Jersey businesses discover an appearance on Shark Tank is no guarantee of success

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Grilled Mac+Cheese and a classic tomato soup at Tom + Chee.
Grilled Mac+Cheese and a classic tomato soup at Tom + Chee. - ()

The assumption is logical. If being on a reality TV show changes peoples' lives — turning the unheralded into cultural heroes — then being on “Shark Tank” must do the same for businesses.

Not so fast.

A look at four New Jersey-based companies that appeared on the ABC reality show, where they can attract attention from the public — and, more importantly, dollars from the investor hosts — shows a mixed bag of success.

Tod Wilson, Mr. Tod's Pie Factory

Don't believe everything you see on television, says Tod Wilson.

Wilson, a 25-year baker and distributor, began Mr. Tod's Pie Factory in 2002 by selling his signature bite-size sweet potato pies wholesale. His company later developed into two retail locations in the Somerset section of Franklin and Englewood, and a nationwide mail-order business.

Still, Wilson needed funds for additional production facilities and marketing.

Tod Wilson is the founder of Mr. Tod’s Pie Factory.
Tod Wilson is the founder of Mr. Tod’s Pie Factory. - ()

So he sent along a mini chocolate pecan pie with his application for "Shark Tank" — and became the first person to be featured on the show in 2009.

The Sharks loved the bite-size pies. And when real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and branding expert Daymond John offered Wilson $460,000 for 50 percent of his company, Wilson accepted on camera.

The deal never went through. Wilson withdrew from the agreement, citing the equity he would have to relinquish. The money never changed hands.

"'Shark Tank' continued to film updates with me, though, so I had to act like the deal was ongoing," Wilson said.

Carrying on the storyline was good for the show, but not for Wilson's business.

"People saw me take the deal, so everyone assumes now that I don't need any money," he said.

"But we're still trying to build a national brand on par with Entenmann's and Sara Lee. I think my appearance on the show caused me to miss out on other investment opportunities."

But with every gray cloud comes a silver lining.

Because of "Shark Tank," doors opened for Wilson. Mr. Tod's Pie Factory has been endorsed by Oprah and Country Living magazine, among others, and has been featured on every major television network. His online sales have more than quadrupled over the last five years, and Wilson recently deployed a mobile bakery concept in Soho with great success.

With that, the money finally could be coming.

"I was on the show five years ago, and I'm just now working on a deal that could change our fortunes overnight — that's pretty powerful," he said.

Kelly Dineen and Joceyln Fine: Fohawx!

"Shark Tank" has the ability to dramatically alter the minds and paths of its featured business owners.

Madison mothers Kelly Dineen and Jocelyn Fine quickly learned the difficulty of taking a product from conception to the marketplace when they created a company selling decorative helmets for children called Fohawx!

Struggling to make their company profitable, Dineen and Fine attended a 2013 open call in Philadelphia in hopes of securing an investor to help create a better assortment.

"We wanted a partner with direct manufacturing contacts who could help us drive the price down," Dineen said.

Thousands of people auditioned — but only about 100, including Dineen and Fine, made it to air.

"It's a very arduous process," Dineen said. "Producers ask tons of questions and eliminate contestants at every level."

Though Dineen and Fine were not able to secure an investment with any of the Sharks, the exposure did help their business.

Fohawx! saw a huge spike in Web traffic, sales and interest from newspapers, magazines and stores; their company was even featured on The "Today" Show.

But that blip would only last for a month after the episode aired.

"In the end, 'Shark Tank' forced us to look at our company through a microscope," Dineen said. "We had to be precise with our numbers and thoroughly understand our business in addition to being willing to stand up in front of the country and fight for our product.

"Through that process, we discovered that our business wasn't significant enough to be valuable for another year."

Though Fohawx! was dissolved last year, Dineen continues to encourage entrepreneurs to apply.

"Overall, 'Shark Tank' is an amazing tool for small businesses," she said. "The opportunity to showcase your product, company and accomplishments nationwide is priceless."

Kevin and Melissa Kiernan: LastLid.com

After watching "Shark Tank" one evening, Kevin and Melissa Kiernan emailed the show's producers about a prototype lid they created after their garbage was continually knocked over by critters. The lid was made of 100 percent animal-proof polyester and could fit cans up to 32 gallons.

The pair was invited onto the show.

Despite having zero sales, the Kiernans boldly requested $75,000 for 25 percent of a company that did not yet exist.

"That's when Daymond told us to make him an offer we couldn't refuse," Melissa said. "We didn't have anything, so it was better than nothing — we offered him 60 percent of our business for $40,000."

Kevin and Melissa now work with John and three other partners selling their product online and in 300 Lowe's stores nationwide.

Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush: Tom+Chee

Success doesn't always start with "Shark Tank."

The founders of Tom+Chee, Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush, started selling classic grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup and their famous grilled cheese donuts under a tent in Cincinnati's Fountain Square.

"We started as two guys from Midwest American families with a tent and a griddle," Ward said. "That's when I started emailing 'Shark Tank' with hard business statistics."

In about a year's time — and no word from "Shark Tank" — they would make enough money to purchase a store downtown.

In its first year, Tom+Chee made about $500,000 in sales. That would double over the next two years, growth that has continued to steadily increase.

By the time "Shark Tank" reached out — a year and a half later — Tom+Chee already had been featured on "Man v. Food," "Amazing Eats," The "Today" Show, "Good Morning America" and others.

But when Ward and Quackenbush originally accepted an offer of $600,000 for 30 percent of the company from Corcoran and billionaire Mark Cuban — the deal has since been altered with Ward and Quackenbush partnering solely with Corcoran — Tom+Chee caught the immediate attention of Lynn Eckel in Freehold.

"As soon as I watched the episode in May of last year, I instantaneously went on their website and filled out a franchise form," Eckel said. "I thought it was a great concept and there was really nothing around here like it."

She wasn't alone. In the weeks following the "Shark Tank" episode, Tom+Chee received more than 15,000 franchise requests.

Now, Eckel and her husband Timothy own the only Tom+Chee on the East Coast in Freehold, with plans to open another location within six months.

Not more than a week after Lynn signed the contract, she was asked to film for 12 weeks for Fox Business News' "Franchise Friday" — and she appeared on the "Shark Tank" update in January.

Right when they opened Tom+Chee in Freehold — lines were out the door and down the sidewalk.

"Some people will come and wait in line as part of the experience," Timothy Eckel said. "They want to see a restaurant drawing a crowd."

Especially if it's one they've seen on TV.

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com

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