When The College of New Jersey alumni Kevin Gabauer and Tom Armenti (’09) were students and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers, they never expected that they would one day stand before a line of sharks in the most important discussion of their professional lives.
But when there was a casting call last summer in Denver for ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the now west coast-based businessmen jumped at the chance to have world-famous investors strengthen their late-night eatery chain, Fat Shack.
Known for serving indulgent “fat sandwiches,” Fat Shack’s original Ewing location was a popular destination for students looking to treat themselves to comfort food after other on-campus dining locations would close. While the Fat Shack in Ewing closed in 2017, Gabauer and Armenti emphasized the chain’s strong ties to the College as they prepare to open their 14th location out west.
Gabauer and Armenti were not able to comment on their interactions with the sharks or whether or not they received a deal as of press time. However, they were able to offer insight on their experience starting a successful business.
Fat Shack’s Ewing location celebrated its grand opening in February 2010. Armenti struck a deal with a local business, RJ’s Bagels, so that after the bagel shop closed at 4 p.m., he could sell items from Fat Shack’s menu in the space from 6 p.m to as late as 4 a.m. In the beginning, he used to have to store food for the restaurant at his home on Hollowbrook Drive.
While this arrangement was unsustainable, it allowed Armenti to open his first restaurant for only $5,000. Fat Shack quickly gained a cult following from hungry students at the College as a result of Armenti’s marketing efforts.
“I walked through Travers and Wolfe and handed out menus just to get the word out there,” Armenti said. “I also started a Facebook group that had a lot of members, so people would be really excited when I gave them a menu and they would tell me, ‘We’re so excited for you guys to open! I’m in your Facebook group.’”
Today, Fat Shack’s menu includes sandwiches, burgers, wings, milkshakes, desserts and more.
Though Gabauer and Armenti decided to sell the Ewing location because the business was expanding in Colorado, Texas and Washington, they expressed how Fat Shack is closely tied to their experience as students at the College. Gabauer studied business management with a minor in marketing, while Armenti studied marketing. They were both brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, and they give credit to the connections they made within their fraternity and the School of Business that helped their business grow.
Armenti said that he is a long-time fan of “Shark Tank,” and that he hopes his experience on the show will help him expand the business across the country.
“I have watched the show ever since it came out, and I think watching it for so long has helped me learn from other people’s mistakes,” he said. “I hope that by putting ourselves out there, we are able to help Fat Shack grow.”
Though starting a business can be scary, Gabauer and Armenti encourage students with entrepreneurial spirits to give their dreams a chance.
“Dive right in — just pour everything you’ve got into it. You’re so young still so that if something doesn’t work well, you’re still well-positioned to find something else,” Gabauer said.
Armenti agreed that college is an ideal time to establish at least the bare bones of a startup, since it is not essential that business owners be experts in the field as long as they are determined.
“You don’t need to know everything, because nothing can replace the will to succeed,” he said.