By Suzy Strutner, managing editor at Grow Wire
- Legendary Southern-California brand Wahoo’s Fish Taco grew from its cofounder’s simple desire for a lifestyle change into a restaurant chain 60-plus locations strong.
- Wing Lam intentionally geared his brand toward an action sports clientele with strategic placement of his first location and attendance at action-sports trade shows and parties.
- Lam credits his networking skills -- and his “No-Turkey Rule” -- as key to his company’s growth.
Walking into a Wahoo’s Fish Taco feels less like entering a major restaurant chain and more like stumbling into a surf shack’s chilled-out kitchen.
First, you approach a cashier’s stand covered in stickers -- surf brands like Hurley and Lost, along with skate brands and rock bands. Surfboards and skateboards hang from the ceiling, also covered in stickers. Surf posters line the walls. And the windowpanes are almost completely covered with… stickers.
A typical table at Wahoo's
Then, if you’re lucky, you run into Wing Lam.
Wing Lam, cofounder and owner of Wahoo's Fish Taco
Lam started Wahoo’s with his two (biological) brothers in 1988, shortly after graduating college. He’s since become the face of the empire, which now includes over 60 locations in seven U.S. states and two in Japan. Wahoo’s has a major catering arm -- think surf events, corporate gatherings and birthday parties – and generated over $65 million in revenue last year, according to Lam.
While impressive, the brand was born from his simple desire for a lifestyle change.
“The main goal was to work in shorts and not have to commute,” Lam told Grow Wire of his swap from a finance job to taco-slinging after just a couple of years in the workforce.
To this day, Lam gets industry attention for his laid-back look, which usually includes board shorts, flip-flops and his long surfer’s hair flowing freely. It doesn’t seem to hurt business: Wahoo’s recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and plans to add five more locations this year.
A target audience and a chance connection
As a fraternity brother at San Diego State University, Lam made friends by cooking tacos for girls on the frat-house porch. But another influence proved key to his company’s identity and overall success: Aside from feeding people, it turns out Lam also loves action sports. Before starting Wahoo’s, he dreamt of meeting world-champion surfers like Tom Curren and Kelly Slater. In fact, he wanted to make a job of it.
“I thought, ‘It’d be cool if I met these guys,’” Lam said. “But I couldn’t surf, not professionally at least. And the odds of getting into action sports were zero. So instead, I looked at my own skill set.”
Lam had grown up working in his parents’ restaurant with his brothers, Ed and Mingo Lee. The trio took regular surf trips to Ensenada, Mexico, where they discovered the deliciousness of fish tacos after long days in the water. So, when the brothers started a business together, a restaurant was the natural choice.
The Lam brothers opened the first Wahoo’s strategically near the warehouse for Billabong, a major surf brand, as a way to mingle with industry folk.
The Lam brothers at the first Wahoo's location in Costa Mesa, California
One day, a friend of Lam’s brother -- a former surf-shop manager turned Billabong exec -- walked in for lunch.
It was a breakthrough. The friend asked if Lam could cater a meetup for the company’s buyers.
“We had never catered previously,” Lam said. “But I figured, ‘I’ve done this at the frat house before.’ So I told Billabong, ‘Sure, I’ll set up a little taco stand for you.’”
Lam drove to Downtown L.A. in search of a homemade 55-gallon barbecue, the only kind he deemed suitable for outdoor catering. He found one for sale in a residential front yard, paid for it in cash, threw the grill in his pickup truck, and set off to start his “catering business.”
Learn more about how the Lam brothers started Wahoo's in the video below.
Catering for street cred
The Wahoo’s empire was built largely on catering, not restaurants. This model lent both to Lam’s desire to meet famous athletes and wild word-of-mouth marketing exposure.
After that first Billabong catering event, Lam’s friend suggested he come along to the ASR trade show, the biggest meetup for sports retailers at the time. Lam got tons of facetime there -- other surf brands immediately considered Wahoo’s legit due to its Billabong connection.
“People said, ‘I didn’t know you did catering.’ And I told them, ‘Oh yeah, I did it yesterday for the second-biggest surf brand in the world,’” Lam said. “You’ve got to give people the impression that they should be doing business with you.”
Brands like Quicksilver soon booked catering gigs of their own. Lam continued building his clientele at events like trade shows and surf video premiere parties, where high volumes of industry leaders gathered in a single room. Today, Wahoo’s works regularly with brands like Billabong and Quicksilver and counts athletes like Kelly Slater among its fans.
Wahoo's caters action sports events like surf contests, snowboarding festivals and auto races, as well as charity events and concerts. For Lam, it's all about increasing exposure in his niche.
Sure, Lam’s success story involves luck: A Billabong exec isn’t always going to walk into your restaurant on opening day. But chances are that at some point, someone important will walk in. And when they do, you’ve got to be ready.
“Like dating, success is a bit of being in the right place at right time,” Lam said. “You can’t predict what’s ahead of you, but you’ve got to make the best of wherever you are. We were there, [Billabong] walked in, and we were ready to go. If they didn’t give us that break, we wouldn’t be here now.”
Pro bono for the pros, but friends and family pay
In the early days, Lam didn’t charge surf companies when he catered their events. Instead, he asked for swag like shirts, shorts and shoes in return for tacos. Firstly, this model satisfied Lam’s desire to mingle with and be treated like a pro athlete. Secondly, it allowed him to access major brands with ease.
His early catering profit, meanwhile, came from friends and family. He especially relied on former members of the college Greek system, notably those from more “popular” houses who, in Lam’s words, “thought it’d be funny to have a Lambda cater their kid’s birthday party.”
Obviously, personal connections were critical.
A category king
Wahoo’s is a classic example of a category king, a company that wins out in a market because it offers the first product of its kind. Category kings shake things up. They introduce a new problem, and a new product to solve it. As marketing guru Christopher Lochhead puts it, these kinds of companies “don’t do better. They do different.”
Wahoo’s was arguably the first taco shop in Costa Mesa, according to Lam. Better yet, it was the first Asian-inspired taco shop in town. The basic structure of Wahoo’s tacos are familiarly Mexican, but the rice is cooked in a Brazilian fashion, and teriyaki bowls dot the menu.
The classic Wahoo's fish taco plate
Though other local taco shops eventually cropped up, none could catch Wahoo’s.
“Being the first taco shop in Costa Mesa gave us such a long runway,” Lam said. “[The competition] is always nipping at our heels, but we were first.”
As a Chinese-Brazilian, Lam stood out in Southern California social circles from a young age. This readied him to go out on a limb with his category-breaking business, he said.
“In my whole high school, I was one of the few Asian kids,” Lam said. “I was one of first Asians to play water polo in SoCal. [At college], I was one of two Asian kids in the whole Greek system. I was used to being the first.”
Of course, the confidence came with time. Lam wasn’t always so comfortable being the most casually-dressed guy in the boardroom, so to speak.
“When I was younger, I just wanted to be like all the other kids,” Lam said. “Now, I just want to be as different as anyone I can be.”
The No-Turkey Rule
After three decades in a company built on connections, Lam’s advice for business owners is simple: Surround yourself with smart people. He cites the old saying, “you can’t soar with eagles when you hang out with turkeys.” Note, however, that “avoiding turkeys” requires a bit of Lam’s signature self-confidence.
“People who are insecure always find people ‘less than them’ to hang out with,” he said. “The opposite is necessary: Hang out with people who are better than you.”
Lam and legendary chef Emeril Lagasse at a Northern-California charity event
Failing to keep talented company can tank both your work-life harmony and your business as a whole, Lam added.
“If you surround yourself with people ‘worse than you,’ you end up doing the work for them,” he said. “It’s like sports: If you have a bad defender, the opponent will figure out where the weak link is and attack. In business, it’s the same.”
Build a solid team around you, and identify someone above you who has excelled in your field.
For those starting or growing a business, Lam says it’s key to “do your homework. Find a mentor, and ask how they’ve done it. A lot of [business wisdom] doesn’t get printed or translated. So, go find out how ‘that guy’ did it.”
Wise words, Wahoo’s.
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