One of Orange County’s most iconic family business stories began on the second floor of a little Chinese restaurant in Sao Paolo, Brazil. That’s where three brothers, Wing, Ed and Mingo, spent their earliest years and where, after school, you could find them in their parents’ restaurant below, peeling shrimp or washing dishes. In 1975, the family moved here, and when the boys weren’t busy helping their parents with their new restaurant venture, they were surfing. Their love of the sport saw them frequenting Baja, where they grew to crave the specialty of charbroiled fish, salsa and tortillas. In 1988 the brothers decided to combine their love of surf and food to create a restaurant with an eclectic Mexican/Brazilian/Asian menu and a Hawaiian north-shore vibe. Wahoo’s Fish Taco was born.
In 2013 the Wahoo’s brothers celebrated their 25th anniversary in business. Since the opening of the first location an entire generation has come of age – and it knows Wahoo’s. Mom comes back time and again because it’s easy, affordable and healthy; and the kids don’t mind because, frankly, Wahoo’s is a cool place to hang.
“Hanging out was the real inspiration behind Wahoo’s,” says Wing Lam, the brother whose face you are most likely to have seen around town, since he does most of the public interface while Ed and Mingo are more focused on building and operations. “I just wanted to hang out with my buddies who were surfers and in the OC surf industry. I love to surf, but I wasn’t as good as most of the guys I wanted to hang out with, so having a place where they could all hang allowed me to be part of their tribe.”
As it turned out, people wanted to be part of the Wing-Ed-Mingo tribe. The first Wahoo’s location in Costa Mesa was a huge success from early on. In 25 years, 17 Wahoo’s locations have opened in Orange County, with a total of 88 total stores in 7 states. In October they announced their first overseas location to open in Tokyo, Japan.
For all their growth, Wahoo’s remains essentially local. Wahoo’s hasn’t just been a place to feed Orange County kids quality food in a positive atmosphere; many of those kids end up going to work for Wahoo’s, which employs over 700 Southern Californians and about 2,000 people chain-wide. All those good vibes and delicious Mexican/Brazilian/Asian-inspired dishes aren’t just good for our souls and bellies; they’re good for our economy.
Wing and his brothers keep the tribe vibe alive by participating in over 100 events each year across Orange County. They sponsor charitable functions, golf tournaments and corporate events, but they get really excited about events that interest and benefit kids: sports events, athletics programs, school fundraisers, local surf and skate contests and more. Their “School Nights” program, where 20% of the profits from sales are earmarked for the participating school, has become turnkey for everyone involved (if you represent a public or private school, just send them an email).)
“The most rewarding part of my job is being able to put a smile on people’s faces,” says Wing. “We’re privileged to become part of our neighbors’ daily lives.”
What’s next in the lives of Wing, Ed and Mingo? Plans for growth include opening additional locations in Long Island, Philadelphia, Arizona, Las Vegas, Northern California and possibly a couple more locations here in Orange County… where they’ll be met with the support of the locals.
Seen above: Brothers Ed, Wing and Mingo, with Wahoo’s partner Steve K, at the opening of the Old Town Orange location in 2013.