WEBSTER SPRINGS — Eighteen months ago, if you’d asked Angie and Dee Cowger their thoughts on the reality show “Shark Tank,” there wouldn’t have been much of a conversation.
The hot dog chili-cooking husband and wife team behind West Virginia’s popular Custard Stand Food Products had never heard of the ABC hit series on which entrepreneurs pitch business deals to a panel of high-profile investors in hopes of securing the funds they need to make it to the next level.
“We had several friends and customers asking, ‘Hey, have you seen that ‘Shark Tank’ show?’ and we told them, ‘No, we don’t know anything about it,” Angie said.
That happened so many times that Dee had a “Shark Tank” marathon, watching show after show while he was out of town on a solo hunting trip.
“He called me and he said, ‘I really think we ought to give this ‘Shark Tank’ show a try.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” Angie said.
Dee had to convince her that it was the right move to make.
“I told my wife, ‘If we can just get on the show, that’s going to help our company — deal or no deal,’” he remembered.
On Feb. 21, viewers from West Virginia and across the country were watching as Angie and Dee took a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Into the tank
“We submitted a one or two paragraph online email to a ‘Shark Tank’ email address. We did that around the first week of March,” Angie said.
Within a day or two, they received an email acknowledging their application, and then, around the first of April, they received another email that said the couple was under consideration for the show.
“I was like, this is an April Fools’ thing,” Angie said.
But it was no joke. And since then, Angie said, things have been “a little crazy.”
“It was probably from April 1 to mid-May before we knew for sure, and you never really know, because there’s always the contingency that your episode may not air, you may not make the next cut or whatever happens.”
At that time, the Cowgers were given a date range to keep open for filming purposes. When it finally came at the end of June, the experience was “fun, but kind of nerve-wracking,” Dee said.
Then, for the seven months that followed, they couldn’t discuss the big news until their episode aired. Not even with the persistent Gazette-Mail reporting staff. It helped that they returned home in the middle of The Custard Stand’s peak season, so there wasn’t much time to think about anything else.
“We hammered out the hot dog chili and kept right on truckin’,” Angie said.
Another email informed the Cowgers that they were being considered for a home episode, meaning film crews would actually visit The Custard Stand here in West Virginia.
“We were really, really excited about that,” Angie said. “It’s all well and good for us to go there and present on the show, but for them to come here, we were like, ‘That’s so awesome.’ It gives us an opportunity to not only showcase ourselves but our community and our state.”
The crew ended up shooting footage of Webster Springs, the Cowgers’ home and The Custard Stand restaurant, which was shown in the episode as part of the couple’s introduction.
“We spent about 10 hours with them that day,” Angie said. “When they came to town, they actually had people sign releases and we just told them that we were shooting a commercial, so they still didn’t know that ‘Shark Tank’ was here and that it was going to happen.”
They were only allowed to tell key employees and minimal family members about the experience.
Angie asked the folks at ABC if The Custard Stand is the only West Virginia company to ever appear on the show.
“We also talked to the Department of Commerce and Division of Tourism, and no one had any knowledge of any West Virginia business being represented on ‘Shark Tank,’” she said.
Swimming with the sharks
For their episode, the Cowgers pitched Custard Stand Food Products to “sharks” Kevin O’Leary, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban.
Their hope was to scale their brand from regional to national, and they asked for $400,000 and guidance in exchange for 10 percent equity in the company to do so.
“We actually had higher numbers in mind,” Angie said.
“We think we’re probably a $5 million business. For the last 10 years we’ve grossed over a million dollars every year, and we’ll gross over 2 million this year.”
In order to mentally prepare for the experience, she and Dee maintained a level of positive thinking.
“One of the things that you do is you never consider that you won’t get a deal,” Angie said. “That’s what made it work for us. We are very passionate about our product. We believe in our product, we eat our product, we serve our product … if you have any doubts about your product, then you don’t belong on the stage.”
Each shark brings his or her unique focus, interests and areas of expertise, so Angie and Dee didn’t go on targeting a specific shark.
“Each had a benefit that we were excited about,” Angie said. “Everybody brought something to the table.”
The sharks gobbled up the chili samples that were served, but expressed some concerns about the business proposal: John and O’Leary weren’t certain about the valuation — the value of the existing company; Greiner wasn’t partial to the sweet taste; Cuban felt that there were “too many moving parts;” and Herjavec wasn’t sure if it was possible to take Custard Stand from regional to nationwide.
The end result? There were no takers, and the Cowgers headed back to West Virginia without a deal.
It was a little hard to swallow.
“Hot dogs are not regional,” Angie said. “The flavor profile of the topping is regional. Some people, like in Texas, they want a hot, hot, hot chili. ... It just depends.”
Another piece of information that made the sharks hesitate was the subject of debt, which was $700,000 when the show was filmed.
“We didn’t get a lot of opportunity to explain the debt, either,” Angie said. “The debt that is there is also related to our second business, The Custard Stand restaurants. The brick and mortar store opened in November of 2014, and that was about $350,000 itself.”
Besides, she added, “Honestly, what business doesn’t have debt?”
They didn’t offer a deal, but the sharks were complimentary of the chili — and enthusiastic about how much the business has grown on its own since The Custard Stand opened as a dairy bar in 1991, and then later adding production facility, selling to grocers including Kroger, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and IGA in 15 states, and five franchises.
“I think you guys are killing it,” Herjavec said on the show. “I mean, you started a business with one stand. Congratulations to you. I don’t have any issue with that. I think you guys love the product, and you’re passionate about it. I love all that.”
“Here’s what I see,” Cuban said. “You come in asking for $400,000 for 10 percent. That means you have a business valued at $4 million — that makes you guys multimillionaires, and that’s why I do this show because everybody in America is watching this show, watching and wondering can they be that couple. Can they be that couple that comes from some town no one has ever heard of, start a stand and build a business where you’re making half a million dollars a year ... you are everything that everybody watching this show aspires to be, and so you should be very proud of yourself.”
And the Cowgers, although disappointed about the outcome, were not deterred.
“They loved our product, and that was validation for us,” Angie said. “They may not have bought into the concept or the idea in the manner that we wanted, but they all know Custard Stand Hotdog Chili is an awesome product.”
The secret revealed
Angie and Dee were finally able to reveal their big secret when their episode aired. More than 200 people gathered at The Custard Stand restaurant in Webster Springs to watch with the couple.
It was originally scheduled to air on Feb. 26, but there was a last-minute change, and it was moved to Feb. 21 as part of a special episode shown after a Disneyland anniversary special.
“The fact that it was a Made In America episode and the fact that it aired on a Sunday night when more families are at home and more of our target market is watching and seeing us was so great,” Angie said.
Because of the viewing party, many people thought they had actually gotten a deal. But Angie and Dee had decided early on that if their episode actually aired, then, “By golly, we’re having a bang-up party.”
Still, reliving the episode brought back every moment.
“The watch party was a little more emotional for us,” Angie said. “You saw me cry on stage, you saw me cry at the ‘Shark Tank’ party. It wasn’t sad tears. It was more of like thankful and glad we got to share. It was a little stressful, but we were excited. And we were relieved because we could finally talk about it and answer questions and share some of the things that happened.”
In the first 48 hours after the show aired, The Custard Stand had purchases from people in 44 states. Orders began pouring in almost immediately. In between scrambling to make enough product and fill all those orders, they’ve spoken with co-packers and logistics companies to help with demand if the need becomes too much to handle by themselves.
Online sales have skyrocketed to the tune of 5,000 percent.
“We were shipping an average of five orders per week,” Angie said. “Between Sunday night and Wednesday morning, we’ve shipped over 500.”
Already established retail customers have increased their orders, and Angie and Dee have sent requested samples to new retail outlets including Food Lion, CostCo and Rouses Supermarkets.
And talk about good timing.
“We’re moving into our season, so this couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Angie said.
“We learned a bunch and are glad we went. I think it’s really going to help our business. We were both let down when we didn’t get a deal, but I think it worked out for the best,” Dee said.
People will see The Custard Stand at events both in and out of state — West Virginia Power and Black Bear baseball games, as well as several food shows and events.
“I’ve even been asked to do some guest speaking engagements,” Angie said.
Even though the outcome wasn’t ideal, the ‘Shark Tank’ wasn’t such a scary place after all.
“We are very, very excited, very fortunate,” Angie said.
“We’re very appreciative to the citizens of West Virginia that have come out and supported us ... our employees went above and beyond, family and friends went above and beyond to make things happen.”
So, would they have do anything differently?
“I don’t know,” Angie said. “We’ve been so busy just moving on. After the show aired we kind of said, we could have responded to this differently, we could have responded to that a little differently, but as far as the display, our presentation and the information that we provided and getting our products sampled, that was our goal.”
“Shark Tank” airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. on ABC. Some episodes, including the episode featuring the Cowgers (season 7, episode 19), can be viewed online at http://abc.go.com/shows/shark-tank.