Wing Lam – Surfer, Taco Maker and CEO of Wahoo’s

Wing Lam at Wahoo's Corporate Headquarters

I don’t usually interview business personalities but when I ran into Wing Lam this past Christmas at the Lake Forest restaurant, I realized that Wahoo’s and the CEO at the helm are just as much a part of pop culture as movie stars and musicians. I recent had the opportunity to interview Wing and his wife Kelly. They are truly so down to earth, no diva attitude and willing to help and support a blogger like me any way they can.

The Lam brothers success story is a great inspiration. They have grown Wahoo’s every year and it is now one of the most successful restaurant chains in the US. Wahoo’s has 65 restaurants in seven states and is starting to expand internationally – there’s even one in Tokyo, Japan which is really doing well. Wing Lam’s words of advice will be covered in this post are a great motivator for everyone young and old.

Wing Lam and the Freibrun boys

Wing Lam and the Freibrun boys

Wing Lam with the Freibrun boys wearing Wahoo's caps

Wing Lam with the Freibrun boys wearing Wahoo’s caps

A couple weeks ago I headed over to Wahoo’s headquarters for the interview. Going to the headquarters for a large restaurant chain, one has certain expectations – will the building be a high rise? are there security guards? To my surprise, the Wahoo’s headquarters in Santa Ana is hip, modest and down to earth just like the restaurants. Check out some pictures below I took while visiting  – surfboards, swordfish on the walls, and the whimsical stickers that so many fans are familiar with.

Wahoo's Office in Santa Ana

Wahoo’s Office in Santa Ana

Wahoo's Corporate Headquarters

Wahoo's Office

I was greeted by Wing’s lovely wife Kelly.  While waiting we got to talking and I discovered Kelly is also an astute business woman in her own right. She founded The Whole Purpose in Irvine. The Whole Purpose provides a comprehensive approach to Mindful Wellness through a balanced lifestyle based on nutrition, fitness, emotional well-being and purposeful communication.

Kelly and Wing Lam

Kelly and Wing Lam

Interview

Ruchel: Can you tell me in a nutshell how Wahoo’s got started?
Wing: Back in 1988 we opened the first one in Cost Mesa. Leading up to it was basically a tour of Corporate America which we all Asian kids should do. So we went out and tried it. I worked for Rockwell International and another company called Sparta incorporated which was a big think tank for Star Wars (this was the name for the defense project -SDI). After that, I dabbled in some investments in Real Estates with another friend of mine. And in it, the opportunity for this location came up and about the same time my brother Ed was graduating from college. I kinda said, “Hey, you know what? It might not be the greatest thing for us, but there’s an opportunity here. There’s a great location.” And we talked about doing something that would be more, you know, appropriate to what we wanna do and hang out with the surfers so that’s kinda how the first store got started. The joke is “If you build it, they will come” but you gotta build it like near them. The first one happened to be in Costa Mesa where all the surfers were based in 1988.

First Wahoo's in Costa Mesa

First Wahoo’s in Costa Mesa

Ruchel: Do you guys (brothers) all surf?
Wing: Yes. All my three brothers surf.

Ruchel: So what did your parents say when you told them, I’m quitting corporate America and would like to start a business?
Wing: They weren’t exactly thrilled but they kinda knew that it wasn’t like exactly our cup of tea cause they were entrepreneurs. So they said, “Well you might as well make money for yourself as opposed to somebody else.” So they were initally hesitant. But mostly, they kinda laid it out. They’re like…it’s alright but it’s a big risk but thought it would work.

Wahoos Co-Founder and Ruchel Freibrun pop culture blogger

Wahoos Co-Founder and Ruchel Freibrun pop culture blogger

Ruchel: How did you come up with the concept of action sports theme especially surf and skate?
Wing: I think in the ’80s it was the beginning of theme inspired restaurants. And I think the first one was the most renowned Hard Rock Cafe.

Ruchel: There was Fashion Cafe too I think.
Wing: I think Planet Hollywood came out later. But then there was another theme, “Rainforest Cafe“. I think Hard Rock was the first one. But there’s always themes about Hollywood and all that. There’s baseball and football inspired sports bars. Wahoo’s was kind like our own little niche – the own local watering hole, so I thought there’s nothing like watering holes here that I like in Hawaii or Mexico. There are other iconic places that the locals frequent but there wasn’t anything here. Over the years, you found out there was Pedro’s Tacos in San Clemente who’s been around but they never really managed to scale it to anything else. We just happened to be in a weird place where all three of us were college grads so we kinda had a little bit of business and a little bit of the hands on and we thought we can scale it . It has worked out ok so far.
Ruchel:  Ok? It has been great so far!

Ruchel: Your brothers Ed and Mingo, how much are they involved? I haven’t really heard their names.
Wing: What happen is they are more behind the scenes. We are all still here. We all work 9-5 in the office and whatever extras are available. But Mingo does all the back of the house…all the accounting, finance, legal. Ed does a lot of renovation and new construction. Ed puts his hands a little bit in marketing with me and I do mostly all the PR and Marketing. That is why you see me out and about.

The Freibrun Boys in Action

Ruchel: Kelly are you involved with the business or trying to learn the biz?
Kelly: I am not involved. I run my own business. I obviously attend and support as much as possible.
Wing: We try to help each other promote The Wellness. It’s one of those things where everybody talks about being healthy.
Kelly: We have fun things too where Wing come to our facilities where we work out. He’ll do a lunch and learn based on how to eat healthy when dining fast. We talk about what do you do , what do you buy. We talk about “If you have a choice between Chipotle and Wahoo’s, why would you choose Wahoo’s over Chipotle. How is the food being cut?

Ruchel: How much promotion are you doing now in terms of social media and traditional media?
Wing: Because of the cost difference, it’s much easier to do social media.

Ruchel: Is it effective?
Wing: If you have a great message and a great channel….. Social Media is all about sharing.  You gotta team up with bloggers. People that have high Klout scores. People that are influencers on the internet. Just like in real life, there are trendsetters. There are people online that dominate the internet… social media space. So you wanna make sure that you are always networking with them as well in traditional media. You go from somebody who’s got an opinion and somebody who’s opinion matters. It’s all based on the followers. There are all kinds of metrics out there.

Ruchel: Do you have a social media person?
Wing: We have a few. I do a little bit myself. There are three of us.

Forty hours a week is a grind. So if you can find a way to spin it to where it’s more gratifying to you or you feel like you’re making more of a difference then you’ll be happier. – Wing Lam

Ruchel: What are the challenges of your company?
Wing: As much as we’d like to talk about how good our food is, it’s the process that is really hard to duplicate.

Ruchel: What’s your goal in 2015 and how far you do you want to take Wahoo’s?
Wing: I think right now it’s going back to the roots. What got us here. What can we do to the menu without straining us so far. We are not a Tex-Mex, we are not a Fresh-Mex, we are an Asian-Mex. We’re the only ones who can do that so we might as well kinda go back and see what flavors we can kinda play  together that keep us separate from anybody else. The salsa…it is what it is. You can’t do too much to it. So we want to keep the basics in place and just add few of the things we know how to do. Strategically thinking, we’re talking about possibly acquiring back some of the franchisees to keep the quality more stable.

Ruchel: Are you adding more locations?
Wing: Oh yes, we are. We have one in Tokyo, Japan already. It’s really doing well in Tokyo. Our first stadium operation just went into affect last September inside the Honda Center and our first airport location will open hopefully this late summer in LAX. I think it’s in terminal 5 near US Air. So it can be interesting for us. And then we have other locations that are under negotiations like in Santa Barbara, Fresno and Del Mar.

Wahoo's receives a bevy of awards

Wahoo’s receives a bevy of awards

Ruchel: What about the East Coast?
Wing: We have Philadelphia and that is really doing well. Long Island is coming up too.

Ruchel: You were billed as the coolest CEO on the planet, how do you feel about that?
Wing: I think where it comes about is the fact that you know, most of these events or business functions people come in their business attire. If I can, I’ll come the way I can because this is how I go to work everyday. So that’s the fine line. Most people say if I can go to work like that, that would be cool.  If you look in the surfing industry we all dressed exactly the same. So because I’m the only CEO they always see. If you see the CEO of Quicksilver and Hurley they wear the same as I do. So when you come in that industry they never wear a suit and tie for a meeting. So that’s the difference, most of the guys that are in the industry – the action sports , they don’t care. They don’t go to a lot of business function and they don’t see why they need to go. I’m the one that they see most often. But if you ever met Bob Hurley who started Hurley apparel, and you’re like ‘who’s that?’ Who’s that guy in T-Shirts and shorts? That’s the founder and CEO of Hurley. There’s casual Fridays, and casual Fridays in this industry became everyday. So they’re like why should we wear suits when we sell T-shirts and shorts. So that’s what they wear. They wear their brands which is advertising for them and their selling their lifestyle.

Ruchel: Can you tell us about the charities you are involved with?
Wing: We can start with just about almost every acronym under the sun. We’ve recently  done some stuff with my wife’s charity. She can tell you more about what they do.
Kelly:  One that I’m focusing on right now is Project Hope Alliance. We’re working to break the cycle of homelessness in Orange County. Their goal is no kid goes without a home. They’re taking families and children that live in motels and they’re getting them on their feet into apartments. It’s a really great organization and it’s a smaller scale. We’ve worked with a lot of large scale organizations and I kinda wanna come back to grass roots and find a smaller organization to help build up to a larger scale. So that’s really what I’m focusing on and Wing has been really helpful.

Ruchel: How did you guys meet?
Wing: I like to compare our meeting to the movie “The Wedding Crashers” how you meet people at weddings or funerals. We met because one of our closest friends died. Through the process of taking care of the widow we ended up meeting and we exchanged numbers. A few weeks later it all worked out.

Ruchel: What do the Lams do during downtime?
Kelly: Our date nights are not really fancy. We go to Little Saigon and we get pho and massages. They have really cheap massages like $20 and $30 for the meal so we do that. We have dinner at home. We like to travel and go places. We cook together. We have a lot of friends up north in the wine country. We have wine maker friends.  That’s always a fun weekend getaway.  We play like charades and just do mellow stuff.

Surfboards on wall display at Wahoo's headquarters

Ruchel: What is your advice for budding entrepreneurs or just people in their 30s or 40s who would like to change their career?
Wing: I tell people it all depends on the stage where they are at. In the ideal world, if you don’t like what you do, you should get out….but that’s easier said than done because there are many commitments right?

So I tell people build yourself a war chest and start talking to people . Everybody thinks that the grass is greener over there right? If you wanna be a programmer, you better know your codes and all that, because they don’t wanna hire anybody because they think it’s cool. You gotta know what you’re doing. Once you figure out …..  “Wow, the grass isn’t greener, you still work 40 hours a week. Maybe shift your mindset to what you are doing and how you can make your job more fun. Forty hours a week is a grind. So if you can find a way to spin it to where it’s more gratifying to you or you feel like you’re making more of a difference then you’ll be happier.

If you’re an accountant you can volunteer your accounting services to a non-profit organization that you like whether it’s an environmental or church. And you realize ” Wow, this is really rewarding because somebody out there really appreciates me for my skill set.” You are not just another number. Here it’s just a 9 to 5 grind right? No matter how you think about it.

I make tacos for a living. How glorifying is that? How cool is that? It is not. It is no cooler or badder or worse than all the other jobs we are talking about. But the people that are in that grind or the assembly line. Whatever they’re doing they can’t shift their focus . All their focus is on that.

Doing that leap of faith though is unbelievably risky and 99% fail. And it never works out …. so the grass is not greener. So you have to truly find what you enjoy doing. Because I tell myself over and over and over making tacos is the coolest on the planet. Because if I didn’t, it’s boring as hell. Sometimes when I sit there on Saturday during Supercross , I made tacos for 6 hours and people asked me “But don’t you own this company?” and I said “Yes I do.” But imagine you doing hamburgers or pizza, it’s the same thing. I got a spatula, you got a spatula. I got a pen, you got a pen. It’s the same thing. It’s boring. But if you stop for a second , you will say, “Yeah but because I did this, it allowed me to be in Supercross, it allowed to be in this resort.” If you do accounting for the church, you’re like “Wow, our accounting is much better because of my services.”

 

 

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Comments

  1. Best fish tacos ever!

  2. great kids

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