From THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT By MATTHEW KORFHAGE
Cassandra Ayala was in the Charlotte airport when she got the call.
It was March 2020, and the pandemic was on the cusp of shutting down restaurants all over the country. Ayala was in full crisis mode — traveling between two locations of her family’s vegan junk food restaurant, The Bumbling Bee. The original is in Virginia Beach, while the other is in Boulder, Colorado.
“He said, ‘This is so and so from ‘Shark Tank’,” Ayala remembered. “And I’m like, ‘Sir, you are fantastic.’”
The previous fall, her entire family had just gone into business together. Ayala, a food truck entrepreneur many times over, had converted all her other businesses to The Bumbling Bee. The restaurant essentially translates the entire state fair into vegan form: dramatically overstuffed vegan Beyond burgers, crazy milkshakes, seitan gyros and vegan Coney dogs.
Ayala sank her life savings into the new restaurants. Her daughters — Olivia, Alexandria and India — also went in “150%,” quitting their jobs to work full time on the family business.
On a whim in December 2019, Ayala also filled out an online form to apply for an appearance on “Shark Tank.” With the right investor, she thought, they could take their vegan comfort food nationwide.
But then came March 2020 — and you know the rest of that story.
So when the phone call from “Shark Tank” came, it mattered. It gave them all something to look forward to, in a world that had suddenly begun to contract around them.
“It really kind of gave us the energizing fun factor that we really needed to keep us going,” Ayala said. “Because that was the height of COVID.”
As the Ayalas navigated the new pandemic rules of existence in two states — and eventually a new world of debt to keep their fledgling business running — they also put together their audition tape.
“We talked about the Mother Clucker, the What the Cluck, and the One Hot Motherclucker,” Ayala said, referring to their quirkily named chicken-esque sandwiches, conceived at the height of America’s fried-chicken-sandwich frenzy. “And dealing weeds, of course.”
“Dealing weeds” is what they do, she said: They sell plant-based foods.
“We know some of you sharks have been dabbling in the arena of weeds,” Ayala said in the video. “And we just think this is so much of an asset to your portfolio you’ve already got.”
The tape was apparently convincing enough for Mark Cuban and the rest of the sharks. In an episode filmed last summer, Cassandra and her daughter India made their pitch. The episode will air at 8 p.m. this Friday on ABC.
On the show, they’ll trying to convince any of five potential investors to sink money into helping them expand The Bumbling Bee beyond its current two restaurants, plus two food trucks named Dixie and Daisy.
Filming during a pandemic meant the show didn’t send a camera crew to film at the restaurants. And on set, COVID precautions were elaborate.
“There were tons of precautions. We were quarantined. There were multiple rounds of testing,” Ayala said. “I think I probably had a test before I left, a test when I arrived, a test three days later, and then I think a test the day we shot. So it was quite a lot of testing. Everybody was in a bubble.”
Ayala can’t say what will happen on the show, or whether anyone offered to invest in their business — other than to say it will be “tons of fun with The Bumbling Bee.”
She still hasn’t seen the edited show, she said. And restaurant staffing has been so short this spring that she may not be able to watch it in real-time.
“I am in Boulder, Colorado. I’m in Boulder because I am the burger flipper right now,” she said. “I’d love to be in Virginia Beach with India, whom I taped it with. But I am in Boulder with Olivia, and we’re excited about seeing it. But I have to flip burgers when it’s on.”
The Bumbling Bee will be featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank” at 8 p.m. Friday, April 23. The restaurant is located at 1650 General Booth Blvd., 757-426-6026, thebumblingbee.net.
Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, firstname.lastname@example.org