Owned by a trio of brothers, Wing Lam, Ed and Mingo Lee, and a family friend, Steve Karfaridis, Wahoo’s indubitably distinguishes itself from the traditional burger joints and plain sandwich delis.
At its grand opening this week on October 12, Wahoo’s opened their 55th store. Although UCI is the first university in the UC system to open a Wahoo’s on campus, there are other universities that have been captivated by the food and atmospheric appeal Wahoo’s offers.
Wahoo’s has become deliciously popular among many people, but how did such a franchise evolve so successfully? Like making a delicious meal, it must take a lot of preparation to create a highly successful business.
One warm, bright Friday afternoon, I rode on a yellow and white taxi to the corporate headquarters in Santa Ana. Once I got off the taxi, I found a small, humble office with glass windows and doors. Photos of Shaun White and other extreme sports athletes became special graphic wallpaper.
Mingo Lee, an amicable man of humble age, wearing a sunburst orange O’Neil shirt with dark navy wash jeans introduced himself. We both headed to the conference room which was filled with new ideas to come.
Most of the inspiration for Wahoo’s was indeed a personal account for the Lee brothers, who were born to Chinese parents in Presidente Prudente, a town located in the state of Sao Paolo, Brazil. The three brothers also had two elder brothers, Bismarck and Yong.
In 1975, the Lee family moved out of Brazil and immigrated to Southern California. Originally, the family last name was Lam, but it soon changed when the family underwent the U.S. naturalization process. The parents of the Lee family established the Shang Hai Pine Garden restaurant in Balboa Island, located in the surf city of Newport Beach.
The Lee family worked in their Chinese restaurant and was exposed to both the difficulties and rewards of operating a restaurant. The Lee brothers would often peel shrimp, bus tables, take out the trash and perform other chores to keep up the busy, rushed pace of a restaurant. Meanwhile, the brothers were immersed in the surf culture that dominated Southern California beach cities.
In the late 1980s, the Lee parents decided to retire from the restaurant business and passed down the ownership of the Shang Hai Pine Garden restaurant to someone else. After their retirement, the parents offered a project for Mingo, Wing and Ed. This project invited the young Lee brothers to do whatever they wanted; moreover, they were given a seed capital to assist with their project. Mingo, Wing and Ed collaborated and finally made a decision: to start another restaurant business.
This time, it was called Wahoo’s Fish Taco.
The three young Lee brothers developed an idea of putting a multicultural twist to Wahoo’s culinary identity. They took inspiration from their memories in Brazil, their Chinese heritage and culture and the Mexican food sold in the sunny California streets.
“[We wanted to bring] a combination of our experiences growing up,” said Mingo. “We also wanted to bring the experience of a Baja surf trip [to our restaurant].”
As the Lee brothers searched for a distinct “look” for their restaurant, destiny decided to deck the wall of Wahoo’s. Because the first Wahoo’s was located in west side Costa Mesa, the restaurant also neighbored many corporte offices of the surf and skate industry. People who worked in these corporal offices often came to Wahoo’s for lunch.
One day, a representative from Billabong came to Wahoo’s for a meal. What came next changed everything.
“A worker from Billabong came to lunch one day,” Mingo explains, “and he decided to put a surf poster onto the walls of our restaurant. Then, it caught like wildfire. Other surf companies would put posters [to advertise] on our walls.”
Over time, Wahoo’s developed affiliations, or as Mingo called them “bro-bro” relationships, with numerous surf and skate companies including Volcom, Kawasaki, Quiksilver, Sector 9, and Etnies. Even today, the surf and skate industries continue to splatter the walls at Wahoo’s with graphic stickers, artistically painted skateboards, posters of extreme sports and numerous pictures of surfers dangerously cruising the Hawaiian North Shore waves.
Whether you are a huge fun of Wahoo’s or a new, curious customer like me, Wahoo’s will definitely cook up a great impression. Wahoo’s is not only just a restaurant, but it also illustrates itself as a celebration and appreciation of the Southern California culture.
Filed Under: Features