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Wahoo’s Founder Inspires Pursuit of Passions

With additional reporting by Nicole Wong

Ed Lee, founder of Wahoo’s, an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant chain, spoke to UCI students last week, encouraging students to pursue their passions in their career choices. Lee sat down with the New University to share the story of his family’s entrepreneurship and his business’s success, including the changes he has perceived in entrepreneurship.

The Lees moved from China to Brazil before settling in the U.S. In Brazil, they had owned a successful restaurant where Lee grew up working with his brothers.

However, when the Lee family emigrated from Brazil to the United States, they faced racism and heavy business competition. The Lee family tried everything imaginable — bars, clothing companies, import export, and even some other restaurants — but none were as successful as they’d hoped.

“Wahoos was our last shot,” Lee said. Lee and his brothers had originally come to Costa Mesa, where the first Wahoo’s was located, to join the surf community who had gathered there.

It was the first venture in the United States that made Lee any profit. He attributed the success of Wahoo’s not only to the unique and healthy menu, but the fact that the restaurant  grew with the X-Game generations – skateboarders, surfers, snowboarders, skiers, and motocross athletes – who were craving new innovations in food and hangout spots.

“I grew up in the restaurant and I had been surfing since I was 14,” he said. “Wahoo’s was the marriage of the two things I knew how to do.”

Lee spoke of the challenges that faced his generation of Asian American immigrants who, in many ways, were confined to familial honor and responsibility when it came to choosing potential careers.   

“Our generation, they would say ‘Gosh you want to be a cook? You’re disgraceful, the black sheep of the family.’ But in the younger generations it’s better.”

Lee’s parents were supportive of his desire to start a restaurant. He hopes the new generation of immigrant parents will, like his family, continue to be more open-minded and realize that “not everyone can be a doctor.”

“People don’t realize that every day someone is going to come up with a new idea,” he said. “You don’t even necessarily have to be an entrepreneur. You just have to be willing to step out and pursue the thing you have passion to do. If that child is happy, that’s success.”

He encourages any students, immigrants or otherwise, who are struggling to reconcile their passions with their career choices to find a mentor.

“I was lucky, I had an amazing brother to help me. I strongly believe that it is not what you know, but who you know,” he said. “If students have this mentality and find a way to network by talking to their professors and teachers and even getting a job in the field that interests them, they will be better prepared for opportunities that will help them to be a step closer to their passions.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this article stated the Lee family moved from Brazil to Baja. The family drew inspiration from Baja but never lived there.