Orange County Business Journal
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Chain Gets Past Downturn, Puts Corporate Vet in Kitchen
Wahoo’s Fish Taco wants to keep it casual for customers even as it tightens up the way the 61-restaurant chain goes about its business.
That’s a shift for a company with laid-back Orange County roots-its dining rooms are monuments to surf and skate culture, with stickers for various brands dominating the decor.
It also is a response to some bruises sustained during the recent recession.
“Like everyone else, we’ve had a rough couple years,” said Wing Lam, a cofounder who is the chain’s public face.
The recession left behind a new catch phrase for established restaurant chains, he said: “Flat is the new up.”
It’s been up and down for Wahoo’s, according to Lam, with a dip last year. The Santa Ana-based chain’s 61 restaurants-34 company-owned and 27 run by franchisees-accounted for sales of $52 million, a 4% drop.
The chain is back on a growth track this year, according to Lam.
“We’ve had growth every month through July compared to the last two years,” he said.
Most of the restaurants are seeing revenue growth between 2% to 8%, he said.
The aim now is to establish a new approach that provides more structure to a lot of the processes that go into getting food to customers.
Lam and his brothers Ed Lee and Mingo Lee cofounded Wahoo’s with Steve Karfaridis, the company’s chief operating officer, in 1988. It grew into a small roster of restaurants and began franchising in 1993, often to the founders’ friends.
By 2010, it had 54 locations, including 21 franchises in California, Hawaii, Colorado and Texas, and was aiming for 70 in early 2013.
The push for expansion through franchising led to the 2010 hire of Tom Orbe as a vice president, an early step toward a more formal approach for the chain. Orbe was a franchisee himself and still operates a Wahoo’s in Temecula and another in Huntington Beach.
Trying to grow through the economic downturn produced mixed results.
Wahoo’s didn’t make it to 70 restaurants it has closed three since 2012, including one in New York, its first on the East Coast.
Deals in Arizona and Rhode Island also haven’t panned out.
The chain is adjusting, with plans to open a restaurant in Philadelphia in November. It’s rethinking its bid in New York, where the initial location was in Manhattan. It’s now eyeing suburban Westchester and Long Island for another try.
Wahoo’s added a location in Japan last year, and the chain wants more overseas.
It also has a big project in the works in its backyard: a restaurant at the Honda Center.
“Good Hard Look”
The strong start this year hasn’t deterred Wahoo’s from longer-term strategies.
“We’re taking a good hard look at systems and putting most of our resources there,” said Karfaridis.
He said Wahoo’s will bring point-of-sale, labor management and accounting to cloud based hosting.
Wahoo’s also plans to add ordering to its smartphone app, he said.
Another big effort is focused on supplier relationships, a key to containing costs and saving time.
A roasted salsa, for example, is shipped almost ready to Wahoo’s restaurants by a supplier working from one of the chain’s proprietary recipes.
“They create the base, and we finish it,” Karfaridis said.
Another supplier starts the teriyaki sauce, but each location completes it. A meat vendor pre-slices came asada-something that used to be done by Wahoo’s staff in the restaurants.
“As you grow, you come to a decision point,” Karfaridis said. “How do you preserve the spirit of the food while growing? How do you scale Wahoo’s without compromising quality?”
It’s a balancing act for a chain that’s facing new levels of competition, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicagobased restaurant industry researcher Technomic Inc.
“They have to build on the menu and flavors without straying too far from the core tastes,” Tristano said. “The fish taco made them popular, but fish tacos are everywhere now.”
Karfaridis said customers often guided menus at individual restaurants.
“They’d say, T want my Maui bowl in a burrito,’ so we created the Banzai Burrito,” he said.
That produced good relations but inconsistent results across the chain.
Karfaridis said Wahoo’s wants to keep the close-up feel of the chain but streamline the process.
Wahoo’s brought on Raymond Martin in January to work on the menu.
He had stints at Huntington Beach-based BJ’s Restaurants Inc. and Calabasas Hillsbased Cheesecake Factory Inc.
His mandate is to reduce complexity and costs in food preparation and presentation while maintaining or improving taste and service.
“You don’t want to waste steps or product, and customers are looking for new flavors,” Martin said.
He said he got a better price and more consistent product on tortillas through a new deal with Irving, Texas-based Mission Foods, a major supplier.
He focused on fewer ingredients with strong flavors-ginger, garlic and onions for its teriyaki sauce.
Martin cut the cooking time on came asada to retain more meat and juice. The beef continues to cook as it comes hot off the grill, ensuring its still cooked properly when it reaches the customer.
“You keep more meat, use less sauce and get the same amount of product,” Martin said.
He added a table salsa by tweaking Wahoo’s legendary pico de gallo-which is also still available-and is testing a spicy ketchup, a southwestern ranch sauce, smashed beans and seasoned onion rings.
Don’t expect sweeping changes-Lam said fish is still king.
Nearly half of Wahoo’s customers are going to eat something with fish in it, he said.
“You can get a chicken burrito from anyone,” Lam said. “But there’s only so much fish out there, and we have a great relationship with our suppliers.”
Martin estimated 80% of the menu has been improved in some big or small way.
Tristano said Technomic’s research on Wahoo’s consistently reveals high levels of consumer loyalty.
That meets the benchmark set out by the chain’s owners.
“Nothing will be compromised,” Karfaridis said. “We’re adding scalability and leaving the core qualities intact.”
Back in 2010, when Wahoo’s brought Orbe to boost franchising, he said the chain could grow to 400 or 500 locations but didn’t want to do it in “cookie-cutter” style.
Lam used the same term last year to describe what he intends to guard against in the latest push for growth.
“While Chef Ray is working, I’m out there gallivanting in the Wahoo’s (food) truck testing the theories,” Lam said. “Then he and I compare notes.”
Lam said not all of his ideas translate into good-or cost-effective-products on the wider scale that Martin’s been hired to oversee.
“He’s about process and presentation, and I’m about convenience and flavor, and we meet in the middle,” Lam said.
The results of the collaboration will get a showcase when Wahoo’s opens in the Honda Center this fall.
Success there could lead to another growth push and more hires for Wahoo’s management team, Karfaridis said.
“We can bring in people to do that,” he said. “This has been four guys doing all of it on the run for a long time.”
Wahoo’s Fish Taco wants to keep it casual for customers even as it tightens up the way the 61-restaurant chain goes about its business. A roasted salsa, for example, is shipped almost ready to Wahoo’s restaurants by a supplier working from one of the chain’s proprietary recipes. How do you scale Wahoo’s without compromising quality?” Balancing Act It’s a balancing act for a chain that’s facing new levels of competition, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicagobased restaurant industry researcher Technomic Inc. “They have to build on the menu and flavors without straying too far from the core tastes,” Tristano said.