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Wahoo's co-founder Lam hopes to stoke students

By Erika Engle

LAST UPDATED: 1:51 a.m. HST, Oct 1, 2010

Wahoo's Fish Taco co-founder Wing Lam will speak to entrepreneurship students, take meetings with board-sport lifestyle brand leaders and maybe catch some waves while in Hawaii next week.

He also will meet with his Hawaii franchisees to talk about their expansion to Kahala and perhaps beyond. More on that in a moment.

Lam, who co-founded Wahoo's in 1988 with brothers Ed and Mingo Lee, will speak to students of Chaminade's Hogan Entrepreneurial Program at the Pacific Club Thursday afternoon.

"They always bring in somebody to kind of motivate the kids, to broaden their horizons, and I'm the first of the year's speakers," Lam told "TheBuzz."

He had no idea the company he and his brothers started after eating at taco shacks during surf trips to Mexico would become an empire.

"I thought I'd have one little taco stand in Costa Mesa and be able to surf all the time," he said. "I still get to surf," but his days are ruled more by the need to get into the office, rather than the tides.

The Chaminade event invitations describe Lam as the "coolest" C-suite executive on the planet, though he is uncomfortable with the chief executive label. "I don't know what a CEO does," he said. Also, he's not into wearing suits.

He planned to call Chaminade to double-check the event's dress code, given his preference for casual attire. "It makes it easier for (the students) because they can picture themselves doing what I'm doing," he said. "This guy's wearing shorts, we can relate."

Among his contemporaries, surf mates and golf buddies are leaders of companies raking in nine and 10 figures in annual sales. They got to know each other "when we were all starting up," Lam said. Wahoo's would cater their surf events, dinner meetings or other functions, and they still "try to get together wherever we're at, in the islands or the mainland," he said. Wahoo's annual sales are about $75 million, from company-owned and franchised stores.

"I'm surrounded by great people, and we all inspire each other to do better. When I'm teaching, I invite these guys to come to my classes," he said.

He teaches marketing to MBA students at Concordia University and has taught at Pepperdine. "There are rumors that I may teach at a couple other schools," but Lam says he'll stay with one at a time.

It is more than rumor, meanwhile, that Wahoo's will expand to Kahala.

Siblings Stephanie (Pietsch) Gambetta, Noel Pietsch and Michael Pietsch opened Hawaii's first Wahoo's Fish Tacos on Ward Avenue at Auahi Street in 2006 and will open in at 4616 Kilauea Ave. near the Olive Tree Cafe "before the end of the year," Noel said.

It is a slightly different concept from the Ward location, as it will be a neighborhood bar, she said. "We've been really careful" about expanding but are happy "to be opening a business in a down economy" that will provide jobs.

Lam believes Hawaii can support "at least half a dozen," including some on Maui, something he'll discuss with his Hawaii franchisees.

Meanwhile, he also hopes to meet with Dakine backpacks founder Rob Kaplan and Billabong President Paul Naude while here, perhaps for dinner or a set or two. "Nothing too big ... (maybe) head-high," Lam laughed.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by e-mail at


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