Surf’s up for three brothers, Wahoo’s founders
Wing Lam is leading the quintessential California lifestyle. He lives a block from the beach, so he can walk or bike to the ocean whenever the waves call. “I went surfing before I came in to work today,” he said on a recent phone conversation—at 9 a.m., California time.
“Surfing keeps you on your toes,” he added later. “And it’s very calming, as well.”
It’s an enviable lifestyle, one that defines Lam’s restaurant chain, Wahoo’s Fish Taco. Lam and two of his brothers, Ed and Mingo Lee, started the concept in 1988 in Costa Mesa, California, and have since grown it to 65 units, most of them out west.
The founders have different last names, for a complicated reason, but Wing, Ed and Mingo are all surf-loving brothers with roots in China and Brazil. They were born in Brazil to Chinese immigrants who had escaped the country after the Communist revolution, moved to Japan and then to Brazil, where they started a Chinese restaurant in Sao Paolo.
“I grew up in a restaurant,” Wing Lam said. “Really, to get to my house in Brazil, you’d have to go through the restaurant. Imagine having a hidden room in a casino in the back. It was like that. I literally had been in a restaurant my whole life.”
It also made the language a bit more interesting. “In our house, we spoke Portuguese, Spanish, English and Chinese all at one time,” Wing said. “When I talk to my parents, I can’t remember numbers or days of the week in Chinese, so I say them in English or Portuguese even though I’m speaking Chinese. I don’t speak as much Portuguese as I do Spanish, so sometimes when I try speaking Portuguese it comes out Spanish.”
The family moved to California in the mid-1970s, where their dad started another restaurant and the boys took up surfing. As they got older, some of their surfing trips took them south of the border, to Tijuana, where vendors along the beach fried up unwanted parts of a fisherman’s daily catch.
“They couldn’t do anything with the accidental catches, like if they get a shark in with the tuna, or some other fish they couldn’t sell,” Wing said. “They’d call it a byproduct and give it to local vendors. You couldn’t make filet of shark, because nobody would buy it, at least not back then. So they’d cut it in strips, deep fry it, and sell it in a fish taco. They were delicious.”
“Back in ‘88,” he added, “most of the people had never eaten fish tacos. But the surfers, or people without money, ate at the taco stands along the boardwalk. You could get beers at 50 cents apiece, tacos at 25 cents, and it’d be a good day’s meal.”
Mingo Lee, (back to front), Wing Lam and Ed Lee are the founders of Wahoo’s Fish Taco.
Wing went to San Diego State, and along the way had an epiphany about starting a restaurant centered around those fish tacos, but with some key exceptions. They’d give their dishes a heavy Asian influence, and they’d grill the tacos rather than fry them, to make them healthy. They grilled the chicken, took the lard and bacon fat out of the black beans, and added vegetarian and vegan options. “It’s just what we would do at home,” Wing said. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, deep-fried fish “is delicious. I just don’t think you can live a long time eating that much stuff.”
It also pleased Wing’s older brother, who decided to become a doctor rather than a restaurateur. Ed and Mingo, however, went along with the restaurant idea. They divided responsibilities based on their respective talents. Ed worked on construction, real estate and new business development. Mingo, who was still in college when the company started, ultimately became “the money guy,” and is CFO. Wing became the marketing director, because “I seemed to be the one waving the flag the hardest,” he said.
They named their company after a tropical fish popular with sports fishermen. In Hawaii, it’s called the ono, as in “oh, no!”—generally not a good name for a restaurant. So they chose its other name, the wahoo.
They opened their first restaurant in 1988 in Costa Mesa, California. They chose their location, even though it “was not exactly the prettiest” side of town, largely for one reason: “The surf companies are all based in Costa Mesa—Quicksilver, Billabong,” said Wing. “Their U.S. headquarters are minutes from my original store.” The brothers were surfers, after all.
Wing markets the company through events, surfing contests, skateboard contests, snowboard exhibitions and extreme sports events such as the X-Games—which has since become a highly popular annual extreme sports showcase. Wing said promos take “a lot of time and effort,” but the company did them for one reason: money. “When you don’t have a lot of money, the best way to sample is through events,” he said. “You rely on other people.”
Wahoo’s connection with surfing works even in places that aren’t exactly surfing havens, such as downtown Denver, which Mike Donnelly opened 16 years ago, shortly after Wahoo’s started franchising. “It somehow appeals,” said Carol Schauer, director of operations for Wahoo’s of Colorado, which now operates 11 units in the state. “Whether or not you’re in California, there’s an attraction to the community of surfing, snowboarding, those types of activities.”
Schauer believes that image works well for the chain. It does in Colorado, home to some high-flying fast-casual chains, including Wahoo’s direct competitors in the market for Mexican food, the Denver-based Qdoba and market leader Chipotle.
Wahoo’s has been methodical about expansion, choosing a slower growth strategy. The company now has 65 units, 30 of which are owned by franchisees. The company’s sales took a hit during the recession, which Wing acknowledged it has yet to recover from. But sales are improving, along with the California economy. He said same-store sales are up 2 to 3 points this year. “Overall, we’re back on track,” he said.
The company is now in expansion mode. It will open a couple more locations this year, and likely 5 to 10 next year, including one across the ocean in Tokyo. It’s still slow growth, reflecting the chain’s laid-back lifestyle, but Wing Lam is thrilled with it. “It feels good,” he said. “It’s a good place for us to be right now.”