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Owner started Wahoo’s on a Wing and prayer

By Katharine Alden
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Wing Lam is one cool dude. It’s his job.

As founder and co-owner of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, he has built a business on his surfer image and association with extreme sports.

Last week, he spoke to CU business students about how he turned a $30,000 loan into a 28-store restaurant chain and a social circle that includes the world’s top snow and surf athletes.

“All I wanted (students) to see is I’m one of them,” Lam said on the way to Denver International Airport after the presentation, “because they can be one of us, too.”

With black hair trailing down a short-sleeved beach shirt, long black beard, tennis shoes and jeans, the 40-something Lam could have been any one of the undergrads packed into the CU auditorium. By the time he stood to speak, the only space left to listen was on the floor.

“Our job is to promote the lifestyle,” Lam said.

When he opened the first Wahoo’s in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1988, he aligned his store with the leading brands in sports attire.

Billabong. Quicksilver. Vans. Their banners and stickers covered the walls.

His employees wore their products. His restaurant catered the big sports events. Soon Wahoo’s became the official restaurant of all these hot companies, and by association, Wahoo’s popularity was born.

“Start now. Surround yourself with people that bring something to the party,” Lam told the students. “Figure out who your alliances are. It’s all about the giving and the taking, and everybody grows.”

Lam wanted the students to understand that he is not some demi-god of business, just determined.

Instead, he conjured images of the 120-pound high school student he was in 1969 who didn’t speak English and just wanted to hang out with the cute California girls.

Lam was born in Brazil, and when he emigrated to California with his Chinese parents and two brothers, he was driven to overcome his size, language barrier and lack of strength to play on the high school water polo team.

“The only way I could do it was to pay my dues,” Lam said. “You need to realize you can choose which way you want it to be.”

Students walked away with a message their parents probably have been trying to impart to them for years.

“It was obvious that he wanted us to stay in school,” said senior Morgan Jones. “He saw the value in it and he’s pretty cool, so most people can derive some value from that.”

Students crowded around Lam afterward, thanking him and posing for pictures before collecting their coupon for a free meal on the way out.

Katharine Alden can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 389, or by e-mail to kalden@times-call.com.