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Last Update: Saturday September 25, 2021

Key Idea: Turn Tradition Upside Down

The three brothers who founded Wahoo's agreed that the baby should be the CEO.  Meet Mingo Lee who gets to tell his older siblings what to do.   More...

Key Question:


Recognize your weaknesses then figure out how to minimize the negative impact.  In this case, Wing is the oldest of the founders.  Tradition would dictate that he should be the CEO.

The brothers learned much from their parents and they thought that they would only need and want what their parents had. What did their parents have? One location. The brothers thought they would grow to three locations. They could share all the business infrastructure and each run one location. This is the owner-operated model they had learned from their parents, right?

Q: What has happened?

A: First, they were embraced quickly by their tribe/market. They had people loving the Wahoo's experience on day one. They added locations but then were stuck because they had the one-owner-one-location idea in mind and they had no experience to grow past that stage. Steve Karfaridis magically appears. He loves the taste of the food and the simplicity of the operation. He can see that the joint has growth potential and he knew how to grow it because he had big chain experience.

As Steve began to run a location, the brothers realized that he had talents and experience that none of them had. They decided to recognize their weaknesses and take Steve in as a full partner. This is tricky and it has worked for Wahoo's. You do have to be sure that the person you bring in has the same values and goals. So far, so good. Steve is just like a son to Mr. and Mrs. Lee and they now consider him to be a full-fledged member of their family even though he was born in Greece! Wing told us that every restaurant needs a Greek. Just remember, you heard that here first.

Growing up eating good but bland food, we certainly agree that 30 years ago, American cooking was lacking the rich mix of seasonings we all now expect. Wing believes the Greeks know about seasonings and garlic and onions and that every recipe can be improved by a Greek chef.

Q: Describe the management team at Wahoo's and why the structure is obviously the result of creative thinking.

A: Traditionally the oldest son sits at the top of a family business but these guys turned tradition upside down by making the baby brother the CEO. They set egos aside and looked at their natural strengths with cold, calculating eyes. The three decided that Mingo was best suited for the top job. He admits, he is the tight-wad. He also knows what day it is and what time it is while Ed says that Wing can't comb his hair or even tie his shoes. They are hard on each other which is one of their secrets to success. There is no walking on egg shells or trying to couch things so no one will get their feelings hurt. There is plenty of humor and at the same time, this is business and they are excellent at dealing with the facts.

The amazing commitment to honesty and open communication at Wahoo's helps the leadership work like a well-oiled machine. Ed is in charge of real estate and Wing is over marketing. Steve is over all day-to-day operations and the brothers are not allowed to walk into a restaurant and tell any person what to do. That is Steve's job and Steve's job alone.

Think about it

What are your weaknesses? What can you do to fill the gap created by your own lack of experience and natural talent? What are you doing now just because that is always the way it has been done in the past? What would happen if you turned tradition upside down?

Clip from: Wahoo Fish Taco

Mingo Leo, CEO, the youngest of the three brothers

California, Hawaii, Colorado: Something truly special is happening here. The founders of this business are immigrants from Brazil, whose parents are from China.   New Americans continue to introduce new insights and fresh ideas. A beacon to creative people around the world, the USA, more than any other place in the world,  is a place to actualize dreams.

Meet surfers who are building a chain of surfer food joints, Wahoo's Fish Taco. They started from nothing and now have over 40 highly-successful restaurants. They are loved by their communities and respected by their industry. Wherever they go, they have an instant family, an immediate bond with anyone who owns a surfboard, skateboard or snowboard.  Brothers Wing Lam Lee, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee launched the business in 1988.  They adopted a fourth partner as a brother, Steve Karfaridis, a Greek immigrant who managed five-star restaurants in his homeland. He's the systems guru.

Follow the insights of these people and you and your business will prosper.

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Wahoo's Fish Tacos

Mingo Lee, CEO

2855 Pullman Street
Santa Ana, CA 92705

Visit our web site:

Office: 949-222-0670

Business Classification:

Year Founded: 1991

Turn Tradition Upside Down

MINGO: Actually, we went through several phases of growth. Initially, it was a simple concept. We have three brothers, we can probably get ourselves up to three stores, and we each run our own store. And again, if you are the sole proprietor you are there on site; it is not too bad a thing to run. You know, you don't have to keep inventory sheets. Our old school methods from dad is that you just keep everything between the ears. And you just put it together. When you show up each morning, that's when your inventory is put together. You just never have any paperwork in place. So, up to about three stores, that worked. You know, once the fourth and fifth stores were coming on line, we realized that we only have so many bodies to get around town. So that was our first phase, I mean, simple things like, as I mentioned, inventory sheets, getting our payroll computerized. These types of steps were just beginning to take place. Where a lot of people probably would have done it from the get go, we took it for granted that we grew up in the biz, we could do this stuff in our sleep, so we just sort of let it go until such point where you just can't physically do that. So it was a good thing that people like Steve came along to help us get to the next level.

HATTIE: The brothers give much of the credit for growth to fourth partner Steve Karfaridis, a new American from Greece.

HATTIE: Steve, you had done the ultimate, the five star, the European cuisine. And we are talking about a joint here.

STEVE: Sure, that was the very essence about what I liked about it. Was the simplicity, the quality and the freshness. I mean, these were the ingredients that you find in high-end restaurants a lot of times. But high-end restaurants have vast inventories, quality control was a big issue. Wing had an idea that "I want to keep it simple, clean, fresh and uncomplicated, but I want to serve high quality product." So, it combined elements of what I really loved and plus it was simple and I said "You know what? This is a dream business."

HATTIE: Ed explains how the four make the business work.

ED: Mingo is our CFO, he handles all of the finances and he takes care of all the managing of the corporate. Human resources, anything that is corporate, Mingo takes care of.

MINGO: I am cheap to the core. So cheap, you know, it kills my wife each and every day. Everybody at the office, I mean, I cut every corner that is not needed. Again, you know I am concerned about bottom line.

ED: Steve comes in as operations. He handles any daily questions in the restaurant level. Any thing that happens in the restaurant, Steve has a last say. So that one of the things, there is no confusion. "Wing came by, Ed came by, Mingo came by, and he said this." That would make our management confused. They don't answer to us, they answer to Steve. And Steve is great at it.

STEVE: We created a system of ratios, so to speak, we know that the kitchen needs to have a certain amount of meat they use combined a day based on the sales they have. It gives them an instant score about how they're doing today. And we do that daily, on a daily basis, everybody has a metric by which they live.

ED: Wing handles all our marketing, promotions, fundraisers... so he handles that and that in itself is a complete full-time job.

WING: If you discount yourself, you cheapen the image that you have built all these years. So we have a theory. It's either full-price or it is free. There is nothing in-between. Because, if we are going to give something, we give it with no strings attached. You don't have to buy anything, you don't have to bring anybody together, we give it to you and you come and get it... it's free.

ED: I sort of just handle the development of the restaurant. I find real estate and make sure that it's within Mingo's budget and build it out. Laguna's a small community...

HATTIE: Ed took me to one of his favorite locations overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a busy street in Laguna Beach.

ED: This is old and this is the feel we want to bring in to our new stores. It's that beach feel -- an old feel. You try to be that upscale dive. But this is the feel we are trying to get into the shopping center. It's difficult, I mean, but we try to make a new building look old.

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