'Shark Tank's' Daymond John invests in Atlanta Joe's Gourmet Fish Fry

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Posted Tuesday, January 16, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

There are no shortage of fish fry products out there, as any Google search will show, but Atlanta entrepreneurs Joe and Maranda Dowell convinced investor and FUBU clothing guru Daymond John to invest $150,000 in Joe's Gourmet Fish Fry on Sunday night's "Shark Tank" on ABC.

As is often the case on the popular show, John was sold on the people as much as the product.  He admired the couple's persistence, pluck, and on-the-ground knowledge of their customer base.

"I really feel like he understood who we are as people, how we got here," Maranda said in an interview today while at a Publix ahead of the pending bad weather, "It takes a special person to understand the route we took. It's a totally long, grueling route."

It also didn't hurt that John and the other judges loved the fish fry, which Joe cooked himself in the green room right before their presentation to ensure the food was hot and tasty.

"You complete me!" said John after biting into the fried shrimp.

"Over the years," Maranda said on the show, "we have one simple truth: when people try it, they go buy it!"

Joe's Gourmet generated about $270,000 in sales in 2017. The company projects sales to exceed $450,000 this year with the fish fry breading mix selling in more than 800 retail stores nationwide, including Wayfield, Kroger, Publix and Wal-Mart. The fish fry pouches are available in most local Publix markets in Atlanta and some Wal-Marts as well. (A roll-out in 52 Krogers is coming.) By the end of March, they hope to be in 1,200 stores.

After the episode aired on Sunday, the couple handled a flood of orders from its www.joesgourmet.com website as well. They are currently on a two-week backlog but hope to catch up soon.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Joe on the show humbly told his back story, how he was "just a blue-collar worker"  (which Mark Cuban interceded with the line, "There's no such thing as 'just.' ") before he decided to open a restaurant. His father Joe Sr. invested with him. They opened multiple restaurants. He first spied his wife Maranda at one of his restaurants where he immediately told her he'd marry her but they didn't meet up again until eight years later. Within two weeks after he saw her again, he had bestowed her a ring.

At one point, Joe had up to six restaurants in the New Orleans area, but Hurricane Katrina wiped him out and the couple moved to Atlanta. "The only thing I had saved were two fryers in storage. I took a tent, grabbed those two fryers and went to any festival, any concert from Chicago to Miami and everywhere in between," he said on the show.

The Dowells have been hitting the road practically every weekend ever since selling their product. Maranda came up with the idea of packaging the breading mix about three years ago and they have been hustling to grow that business ever since. The judges were impressed with what they've achieved, but most of them were not in the food business and bowed out.

The remaining Shark was John. He said he himself used to have to hustle selling his FUBU hats in Harlem and noted how folks would bluntly tell him what they thought of both his hats "and your mama!" He offered Joe's Gourmet $150,000 for 25 percent of the company. While Maranda, who had been in corporate real estate, countered with 18 percent, the other Sharks quickly goaded her into relenting, saying it was a good deal.

"You just sold fish fry for a $600,000 valuation," said Shark Kevin O'Leary with true admiration. "That is selling!"

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Afterward the taping last fall, the hard-working couple celebrated by taking a well-deserved nap, Maranda said.

"We felt like we won a championship!" she said. "We left everything on the table... It's one of those things you dream about. My vision board came true!"

"It was a good thing I had my wife," Joe added. "She made me look good!"

To prep for the show, the couple watched "Shark Tank" religiously, sizing up each of the Sharks. She knew, for instance, that Mark Cuban does not invest in food products. Barbara Corcoran does but she was not on the panel when the Dowells showed up. Fortunately for the Dowells, John felt their vibe.

Maranda said they have steadily improved their fish fry breading after feedback from customers. They added a zipper on the pack to keep it fresh and ensured it could stand up. And they even came up with the proper size - 12 ounces, good to coat 10 to 15 pounds of protein or vegetables.

"Our breading is lighter than many of our competitors," she said. "It doesn't go on as heavy, doesn't absorb as much oil, adds a lot of flavor. It sounds really simple but it's very unique in the taste."

She said although you see maybe 10 minutes of interaction on TV, their session with the Sharks actually took an hour. But the producers edited the presentation so cleanly, she didn't recall anything major that they cut out beyond self-deprecating jokes.


"Shark Tank," 9 p.m. Sundays, ABC