Santa Ana, California

Founded: 1988

Privately owned

Employees: 700

Industry: Food & Beverage

Products: Baja/Brazilian fish tacos

Three decades after opening his first taco joint, CEO Mingo Lee is riding a big wave in the fast-casual restaurant business.

When Mingo and his brothers, Ed Lee and Wing Lam, opened a fish taco stand in 1988, they saw it as a good way to make a living without hindering their surfing schedules.

More than 30 years later, Wahoo’s has grown to become an international brand with 62 stores across the United States and in Japan.

“You could say we were born into the restaurant business,” says Mingo. “Our parents moved from China to Brazil, where we were born, and we lived over our parent’s Chinese restaurant. Our mom reminded us of how she carried us on her back while she was working, so we were literally in the business from birth.”

His family made its way to Orange County, California, in the late 1960s, and he and his brothers grew up in the thick of the emerging surf culture there. “Our parents wanted us to go to college and ultimately work hard,” says Mingo. “They were quite disappointed when my brothers and I, the three youngest of five siblings, decided to go into the restaurant business.”

The combination of their trips to Baja, the food culture there, and their love of surfing gave them the idea to recreate what they loved most, and bring it to SoCal. “We combined our love for surfing with our love of Mexican food and we put a Brazilian twist to it,” says Mingo.

The three opened their first restaurant in Costa Mesa, which at the time was the world headquarters for every major surf brand. “We opened the doors to our friends in the industry and they came in and started decorating it with their surf decals and banners,” says Mingo. “At the time, we traded food for T-shirts.”

Their unique style of fish tacos won a cult following and the business grew. “After we opened five or six stores, we realized we had to take this more seriously,” says Mingo. “We took what we knew instinctively from the experience in our parent’s restaurant, but as it grew, we took in partners who could help us formalize the company’s structure and processes. We were on the frontier of the quick-service, Fresh-Mex category and it caught on. Our food was always a healthy option and while we became a success, most of it came from trial by fire.”

Handling locations across the continental U.S. and Hawaii (and one in Japan), Mingo believes the company has to be efficient in sourcing its produce and fish. “We centralize as much as we can and source locally,” says Mingo. “Our company-owned stores get everything they need, but those that are half franchise-owned are not allowed to get their own suppliers. We check in on them to make sure they maintain quality and we work hand in hand with our partners. It’s become difficult to maintain this when you have locations in other states. That’s the hardest part of expanding into another region, but when we expand into an area, we typically plan to build multiple units, and we work with our distributors to help make it happen.”

The company emphasizes sustainability in its supply chain. As a testament to that mission, Wahoo’s served a sustainable seafood dinner at the James Beard House in New York in 2018.

With rising competition, Mingo realizes it’s important to add efficiency and having a different type of footprint in areas where it makes sense, to stay current with customers’ needs. “We’re working on efficiency initiatives that include bringing kiosks to the equation as consumers are accustomed to it,” he says. “We’re also looking at delivery and takeout while experimenting on different models of the business. In a shopping mall, for example, there’s room for a full bar and a large seating area but in downtown L.A., a location must be smaller to be successful. One size fits all doesn’t work anymore.”

Challenges: “Our biggest challenge is tied to the minimum wage increases,” says Mingo. “Those costs trickle through the entire system from distribution, to processing and right down the line and we don’t see any end to it in sight. We’re fortunate to be blessed with employees of which some have been with us for more than 20 years. Our solution, for now, is to provide a good working environment and acknowledge their input and contributions. My door is always open.”

Opportunities: “There are still underserved markets in California,” says Mingo. “Our focus is on non-traditional locations such as universities, airports, stadiums, et cetera. This takes a different business model where places such as these often have a kitchen prep area as well as employees to work it. We’re also finding opportunities out of state. Some states have a friendlier business climate and we’re also expanding our franchise development, especially in areas where the Fresh-Mex cuisine isn’t available yet. Wherever this leads us, we were founded and raised in California. I don’t see us abandoning this market, but rather continuing to grow corporate stores across SoCal.”

Needs: “We’re needing to be more efficient, looking into ways of doing this within our processing,” says Mingo. “We want to decrease the use of sharp objects and are looking into delivering food that is already cut, cleaned, and ready to be cooked fresh.”