It was a cold February evening in 2010 when Tom Armenti ’09 walked into Ewing’s RJ’s Bagels after hours, hauled in a bunch of frozen food from the trunk of his car, and launched a late-night sandwich shop for TCNJ students looking for a snack option that delivered.
His idea was simple. One, he had made a deal with the bagel shop owner that he would split the rent if he could operate in its off-hours — essentially 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Two, he would ride the decades-long wave of the “fat sandwich” craze made popular by food trucks at Rutgers starting in the late ’70s. And three, he would recruit his Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers and friends to help cook and deliver the sandwiches (think a sub roll piled high with indulgences like mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, and french fries) to hungry college kids.
A Facebook group for the new late-night dining spot and some flyers around campus were all it took to get his phone ringing. “It got a little crazy that night,” Armenti admits. “We had no idea what we were doing.”
But it worked. That night brought $2,300 in sales, and Fat Shack was born.
This “just give it a whirl” mentality then led him to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2011 to market to the 30,000 students at Colorado State University.
“I just went on a gut feeling and knew that I was going to grind out the work and do whatever it took to be successful,” says Armenti.
With the opening of a full-time Fat Shack, Armenti called his TCNJ friend Kevin Gabauer ’09, who’d landed in insurance after college, and asked him to handle the insurance for the new location. In the process, Gabauer offered his buddy a little more. “I just helped him organize everything and got some things down on paper — some strategy and a real business plan.” Armenti liked what Gabauer could bring and invited his friend to join him in his great big sandwich adventure.
Gabauer had to admit that Armenti clearly had something here — bringing the Jersey staple to the masses —so the strategizer eventually quit his job and packed his bags for Colorado. Together, the pair created Fat Shacks in three states— 11 total, with millions in sales. Then another bit of luck came Armenti’s way, and he went with it.
When Armenti heard that ABC’s Shark Tank was holding open auditions in Denver, he headed to the mile-high city and got a break. The first producer he met was from the East Coast and knew well the fame of the fat sandwich. Much to his surprise — since producers told hopeful entrepreneurs at every turn that they would likely never hear from them again — the Fat Shack pitch kept making it through round after round.
Within a few months, Gabauer and Armenti were on set serving sandwiches to the show’s famous investors. Robert Herjavec tried the Fat Slob; Lori Greiner bit into the Fat Tommy; Kevin Harrington ate the Fat Donkeylips; Daymond John was dealt the Fat Chance; and Mark Cuban ended up with the Fat Jersey. While the sharks ate and debated, Armenti and Gabauer pitched away, sharing that the business has made $22 million in lifetime sales.
Though several sharks made an offer, it was Cuban who made the deal: a $250,000 investment for a 15% stake in the Shack. “Tom and I have spent so many years to build this business into what it is today,” says Gabauer, “so to watch four of the five sharks competing to partner with us was truly incredible.” Armenti agrees it was a big moment for the sandwich shop entrepreneurs.
It was a surprising move for Cuban, who has invested more often in products and businesses that support health. And there is no getting around the fact that a fat sandwich is not diet food — Armenti and Gabauer are serving up pure indulgence: “We are the Fat Shack,” says Armenti unapologetically. Even the owners will tell you their sandwiches should not be staples in your diet — one sandwich could cost you up to 2,000 calories on your meal-logging app. Even so, Cuban wasn’t daunted. When Armenti and Gabauer accepted his offer, he kept the close simple. “Deal,” he said. “Let’s go get fat.”
Just a few months after their Shark Tank episode aired in May, the partners are using the investment to expand the chain, now with 14 locations, by helping fund franchises — for young, hopeful entrepreneurs like Armenti once was. They’re also depending more on business strategy with Cuban’s team than on whims. “We’re going to grow smart and at the pace that we believe is good for us and our brand,” says Armenti. And that means laying the groundwork for their ultimate goal, which is, as Gabauer puts it, “to be everywhere, in all 50 states, near all major universities.”
In a world of açaí smoothies and keto diets and fitness apps, Cuban, Armenti, and Gabauer are developing their plan based on the idea that fat, may indeed, be in.
—Maureen Harmon, TCNJ Magazine