Fish taco entrepreneur talks strategy

Engineer, entrepreneur and surfer Wing Lam built a fast-food empire using unconventional marketing strategies and an unusual menu staple: fish tacos.

In a Pierson Master’s Tea Friday, Lam, founder of Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, which has 37 locations in southern California, spoke on the origins of the “surfer’s hamburger,” the bedrock of his business. Lam, who likened Wahoo’s to an “indoor Mexican roadside stand, but healthier,” discussed marketing strategies for entrepreneurs at the tea.

Lam said when he first suggested serving fish tacos in 1988, his friends did not think the idea would be profitable.

“I started out the village idiot,” Lam said. “But we were doing something that wasn’t being done in California — I was catering to an untapped market.”

But Lam emphasized the importance of creative marketing in his success, stressing fun as an integral part of his business strategy. Competing against national fast food chains, Wahoo’s had to use a creative promotional strategy to differentiate itself, Lam said.

“All major players have deep pockets,” Lam said, referring to fast food chains. “We have a quarter, a tenth, of their resources. So we’ve had to work a lot harder to develop a unique persona behind this company.”

Wahoo’s success rode on the boom of the surf and skate industry during the 80s, Lam said. He said the inspiration for the restaurant’s theme came from the slogan of the sports clothing retailer Billabong — “only a surfer knows the feeling.”

“We can’t import waves, but what if we could just recreate the feeling?” Lam said. “Also, the skate and surf industry gave us a niche, and we had virtually no competition.”

While corporations pay millions of dollars to sponsor famous athletes as spokespeople for their restaurants, Lam developed friendships within the alternative sports industry when Wahoo’s was a fledging company by catering at surf competitions and alternative sports conventions, he said.

“Most surfers, they come back from eight hours in the water, and they eat a soggy peanut butter sandwich,” Lam said. “You bring hot tacos and they love you.”

Because many pioneers in the alternative sports industry are high school dropouts, some of his business connections come from childhood friendships.

During his talk, Lam recounted when friend and then Billabong National Sales Manager Mike Lescher heard that Wahoo’s staff had no uniforms, he offered to donate some from Billabong. Lescher gave Lam a tour of Billabong’s warehouse to choose uniforms, an experience Lam likened to “every surfer’s wet dream.”

Lam, who worked for the Rockwell Scientific Company after graduating from San Diego State University, cautioned against working for corporate America. Lam said corporations follow a strict hierarchical pyramid, and the only people who profit are those on the fast track program.

Martine Forneret ’08, who attended the tea, said he appreciated Lam’s advice.

“I liked hearing about how he left the corporate world,” Forneret said. “You can have a small business that is both financially rewarding and still stay true to your beliefs.”

Mike Kai ’05, president of the Yale Surf Club, who helped to organize the tea, said he met Lam previously and thought he would be a good speaker for a tea.

“I met Wing three years ago at a business conference and we caught up during the summer by chance,” Kai said. “His son is applying to Yale, so this was a good opportunity for him to come and visit.”

Lam said the highlight of his professional career was when he was named Merrill Lynch & Co. poster child for small businesses in 2000, earning him promotional spots in the Super Bowl. When asked, at the time, for a reason his company should be chosen for the recognition, Lam had one response.

“Where else in the world can a Chinese guy sell Mexican food?”

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