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Yo, dude! Wahoo's attitude is different sort of awesome in the back

Wahoo's Fish Taco is known for its cool surfer vibe, complete with servers in Hawaiian-themed shirts and dining rooms decorated with paraphernalia from surfing and other extreme sports.

But behind the scenes at the popular fast-casual chain, the approach to operations is hardly laid back. From the weight of the fish that goes into each taco to the way a cashier rings up extra hot sauce, virtually every detail of running a Wahoo’s has been scrutinized and standardized.

"It looks from the outside like we may not know what we are doing, but we run the back of the house like a hospital," said Steve Karfaridis, vice president of operations and one of Wahoo's four owners.

Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Wahoo's sells Baja-style fish tacos as part of a large menu with Mexican, Brazilian and Asian influences. Since the first unit opened in 1988, the chain has expanded from Southern California to Northern California, Hawaii, Texas, and Colorado. Half the chain's 50 units are franchised. Average annual unit sales are $1.3 million; the average check is $8.

All food is made daily in each restaurant according to strict standards, down to the guacamole and chips. "It is a daunting task sometimes," said Karfaridis, who has a science background and spends most of his time in the field working to make the restaurants as efficient as possible.

"We are not going to compromise," he said. "Fresh salsa means exactly that, not prepared in some commissary and trucked over to your store hours later, which would give it a different taste and feel."

Each location has a professional prep cook who collaborates with the general manager to manage inventory and food preparation, plus a second staffer trained to fill in. The average unit has 20 employees, with 12 to 15 per shift. Labor costs range from 35 to 40 percent of sales. Food costs are 23 percent of sales, Karfaridis said.

The food is so freshly prepared that there are no freezers. The fish - the company sells 45,000 pounds of Wahoo per month - comes in flash-frozen. It is thawed in the walk-in cooler over two and a half days, and then filleted and marinated. The same process is used for chicken and meat. Salsa is made once or twice a day, guacamole every few hours, and chips are fried every hour.

Thanks to a custom software program, each Wahoo's has constant updates on inventory, which helps to manage costs, said Karfaridis, who had a large hand in designing the software. The company seeks to serve the best quality ingredients, and can do that by making sure there is virtually no waste. "We're constantly taking inventory of our products," he said.

Except for the most extreme rushes, cooks weigh the food before they cook it to ensure proper portion sizes. This is a cost control measure, but an added benefit is that guests get the amount they expect most every time.

The kitchen is laid out in a horseshoe configuration versus a more traditional straight line. Each worker has a precise placement, and the horseshoe helps prevent staff from bumping into each other, Karfaridis said.

At Wahoo's, special requests are encouraged. But here too there is science. Cashiers have codes to indicate whether sauce should be inside a burrito or on the side. They press a button with a "plus" sign on it to indicate extra sauce; an "x" means the sauce will be served on the side.

More than 90 percent of the potential special requests have been coded and entered into the company's database. "We have a p.l.u. (price look up) for every little thing," Karfaridis said. "Little things like this make it more efficient."

Wahoo's has a methodical approach to growth. "I hear some competitors say they are going to open 100 stores. Our philosophy is to open one and run it right, make it successful, and then open another," said Karfaridis, who joined Wahoo's in 1990, two years after the first unit was opened in Costa Mesa, Calif., by brothers Wing Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee.

Alot has changed since then. "We used to drag a big old frozen tuna in the back and try to make it into tacos," Kafaridis said.

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