From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Thank You, Mr. Wayne

Ever since I can remember, my father was at the forefront of the curve. Before my four brothers and I were even thought of, he began his long journey from his homeland of China in search of a better life. Traveling to Hong Kong and Japan, he always led the pack by calling his friends to join.

In the late 1960s, it was easier to get a working visa in South America than the United States. So Brazil would be my father’s next stop, where he would open a Chinese restaurant and the place we would call home for the early part of our childhood. In South America in 1976, devaluation hit, and 90 percent of the value of our money was lost. With luck on his side, my father led the pack and left one year prior to this turbulent time.

Among the first major wave of Asians to come to the United States in the 1970s, my father happened to be in the right place during a thriving time. Real estate was booming when he purchased a restaurant on Balboa Island in affluent Newport Beach, California, for $90,000.

As my brothers and I were forced to tackle the culture shock of meeting new people and learning to speak English, my father worked hard to build his business. But it was one particular event in 1972 that triggered a boom in our family’s business and changed our lives forever.

A young lady named Gloria Zigner, the publicist for John Wayne’s wife, was planning her husband’s birthday party at our restaurant. As a favor, Gloria asked her client if John Wayne would make an appearance at her husband’s birthday party. The day he accepted was the day the press would twist the event in such proportions that the myth would begin, and my father’s business would skyrocket.

As the press got wind that John Wayne would be dining at our restaurant, news spread that he was there for his own birthday! Soon, everyone associated my father’s restaurant with John Wayne, and so came the power of celebrity endorsement. Suddenly, our restaurant became a social place that was famous by association. People were coming in to have the chef, who supposedly sang “Happy Birthday” to John Wayne, sing “Happy Birthday” to them. They would say, “Wow, your dad is friends with John Wayne!”

As business did well and our lives in Southern California progressed, so did our social agenda. My brothers and I grew to love the ocean and the beach lifestyle. Surfing became our way of life, and we became known in the surfing world.

As we grew older, our father encouraged us to go to college and discouraged us from working in the restaurant business. He said it was just too hard. So we each went to college to pursue our respective degrees. As I pursued my engineering degree at San Diego State University, I found that being near the border allowed for better partying and better waves. I changed my major and went on to study finance and was the first in my family to get a job in Corporate America. Bouncing around within a few major corporate companies, I realized that the freedom and flexibility that my parents had was not an option for me. I was on a regimented and confined schedule; my life was about rules and regulations. I was not happy.

Knowing I needed to make a career change, I got with my brothers Bismark, Ed and Mingo, and together we decided to start our own restaurant. Our idea? To tap into a new category of restaurants that was developing in the 1980s—quick casual dining! It would encompass a laid-back, hip environment with good-tasting, healthful fast food. Many surf trips down to Mexico would influence our food of choice—grilled fish tacos—but with our own Brazilian/Asian flair!

As with my father’s business, we knew we needed celebrity backing. So we strategically positioned the location of our first restaurant in pursuit of our very own John Wayne—the surf industry! We gutted an old pizza joint in the surfing town of Costa Mesa, California, within just one mile of the major surf companies. A week before the grand opening, our menu was created from borrowed recipes from friends. Wahoo’s Fish Taco was born.

Being near the surf industry, we knew we needed to be embraced by them, but knew we couldn’t ask. In the surf world, you don’t show up at the beach and expect to surf a local break without being invited in. We had to build this relationship, then hopefully the invitation would come on its own.

After opening the store in 1988, things moved slowly; we were working hard and not making much money. One day Mike, my brother’s former boss from Newport Surf and Sport, asked me why we didn’t have uniforms. Before I knew it, I was going on an official “walkthrough” of their warehouse. He gave me Billabong T-shirts, hats and shorts in pink, yellow, green—every day-glow color you can imagine. We had uniforms! Only a week later, a friend from Quiksilver asked why we were wearing all Billabong clothes. Can you guess what happened next? More and more surfwear companies followed. Then came the decorations, paintings, posters and stickers. The John Wayne ball was officially rolling.

Another call from Mike invited us to cater a preview they were putting on for the industry buyers. There we were, cooking fish tacos in their parking lot! The buyers couldn’t believe what they were eating. Word spread about our catering services, and Wahoo’s began to expand outside of the restaurant walls. John Wayne couldn’t be more proud.

That next summer, the local paper contacted me to advertise on their special insert that was profiling surfers. I knew our business couldn’t afford it, but I bought the entire back cover for two thousand dollars. I called Mike and asked him if I could use the Billabong logo on the ad. He agreed, and Wahoo’s Fish Taco became the “official restaurant to Billabong.” Before long, Quiksilver, O’Neill and others were on board. Suddenly, within our first year of business, we were the official restaurant to seven surf companies. It was John Wayne to the max!

After the ad came out, the surf companies brought their top riders into the store. For two weeks, I had “John Waynes” walking around the restaurant every day. I’d hear kids saying things like, “Oh my God! There’s a world champion! There’s a world champion!” Famous surfers were at our place, and for the first time, I knew we would be a success. The following year, Wahoo’s exploded in popularity, becoming the official restaurant of over one hundred surf companies!

It’s been eighteen amazing years, and the myth continues to grow. With over forty Wahoo’s locations and a loyal following in the action sports world, Ed, Mingo and I couldn’t be more grateful—grateful to our mom and dad for having the vision to come to America and teach us about hard work; grateful to the people in the surf world who invited us in to surf their break; and, most of all, grateful for that special birthday evening in 1972 at Shanghai Pine Garden Chinese restaurant.

Thank you, Mr. Wayne. The myth lives on.

In loving memory of our brother Bismark,
we dedicate this story to you in appreciation
of your constant support of our dream.
Thanks for being there to catch us when we jumped!

Wing Lam
As told to Gina Romanello

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Wing Lam is a cofounder and owner, along with his brothers Ed and Mingo, of Wahoo’s Fish Taco. The trio continue their entrepreneurial spirit, having opened an online store for Wahoo’s merchandise, including designer clothing, wine and kitchen accessories. All three are also very active in their community, donating their time, efforts and money, as well as Wahoo’s name and reputation, to help raise funds for charitable organizations and causes. To learn more about the Lam brothers and Wahoo’s Fish Taco, visit]

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