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Wahoo’s Fish Taco brings West Coast vibe to NYC

Wahoo’s Fish Taco brings West Coast vibe to NYC

Wahoo’s Fish Taco is bringing its Hawaiian fusion flavors and surfer vibe to the East Coast with a franchise push into New York City.

The Southern California fast-casual chain’s move into Manhattan marks a big leap in the brand’s ongoing effort to boost franchise growth. In 2009, the chain launched a growth initiative that aims to add at least 100 franchise locations over five years.

Currently, the 60-unit chain includes 26 franchise locations, and growth has been limited to California, Hawaii, Colorado and Texas.

“‘Go East,’ rather than ‘Go West,’ is our battle cry now,” Tom Orbe, Wahoo’s vice president, said.

Six new openings are planned in the next couple of months, including moves into the new markets of Nebraska and Las Vegas, as well as expansions in the existing markets of Los Angeles, Northern California and Texas, Orbe said.

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Wahoo’s is also experimenting with a new prototype unit that includes a full bar, offering cocktails that fit its Mexican, South American and Asian menu themes, such as tequila-based margaritas, mojitos and martinis.

“It will be a limited full bar,” Orbe said. “We’ll do Polynesian-style drinks, like a Trader Vic’s, but at an affordable price.”

Brothers Wing Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee founded the Santa Ana, Calif.-based Wahoo’s Fish Taco in 1988. The concept has a North Shore, Hawaii surf theme with an extreme sports element, such as skating, wakeboarding and snowboarding.

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Fish tacos: The next slider

While fish tacos are commonplace in Southern California, Lam said their popularity has spread across the country, with national chains like BJ’s Restaurants now offering them on their menus.

“Everyone has a slider,” he said. “The next frontier is fish.”

At Wahoo’s, the charbroiled tacos are made with the wahoo fish, a species known as ono in Hawaii, rather than the fried cod or tilapia other chains typically use.

Lam said about 80 percent to 90 percent of the chain’s sales come from fish or chicken tacos, but the menu also includes steak and vegetarian and vegan options.

Sauces and salsas are made from scratch in restaurants, he said, and checks average about $10.

Lam said he hopes New York franchisee Andy Stern, who is planning multiple units there, opens his first Wahoo’s in Manhattan by Thanksgiving.

Orbe said the chain has been growing slowly, looking for clean capital operators that are not heavily financed.

“Our intention was slow, calculated growth,” Orbe said. “We wanted to make sure the concept traveled well.”

The chain’s 2010 sales of about $55 million were flat last year, he said, but in the past few months, sales have lifted.

After an Austin, Texas franchisee saw sales rise about 18 percent after adding a full bar, Wahoo’s will move an Orange County, Calif., unit from a 2,800-square-foot space in the Fashion Island shopping complex to a 4,000-square-foot location with a full bar later this year.

Las Vegas franchise locations will also offer full bars along with slot machines, another first for Wahoo’s, Orbe said.

And in Texas this year, a franchisee opened a unit in a seasonal park that is open for about six months during the year, and where wakeboarding is popular in the summer. The facility also has a skate park and motocross racing, all of which fit well with the Wahoo’s brand, Orbe said.

“We’ll go where the dynamic and chemistry is right,” he said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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