All in the Family: Restaurateur Ed Lee Talks Success and Family

The UCI Leadership Series is dedicated to amplifying the stories and voices that have historically been missing from the leadership and entrepreneurship conversation. In this latest installment, we highlight Ed Lee, co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, about the experience of starting a family business.

Like many children of Asian immigrant parents, Ed Lee was expected to move beyond his family’s restaurant and become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. These expectations stayed with Ed and his brothers for decades.

“When we would go to parties or dinners, my mom would introduce my older brother as the doctor and my younger brother as studying to become a lawyer. My other brother and I were the riffraff at the back of the room. Though my parents were both entrepreneurial, they didn’t see their restaurant and the other businesses they owned as anything more than work to get by. They wanted us to be professionals and expected us to attain a higher status. It wasn’t until Wahoo’s took off that we became the ‘Wahoo’s brothers’ and my other siblings took a back seat!”

When Ed and his brother Wing pitched Wahoo’s to their parents in 1988, they knew that this was their last venture—if they failed, law school awaited. With the majority of new restaurants failing, Ed knew this was a risky proposition. But he believed that growing up in their parents’ restaurant gave him and his brother a strong advantage. Still, despite his knowledge and familiarity with the industry, the early days of Wahoo’s offered a crash course in restaurant management. He recalls, 

“The first five years were tough. While we had support from our parents, we didn’t really have their full support. We started out without a real plan. We wanted to have fun and surf, and even though we were serious about the business, we weren’t really making money. It wasn’t until my younger brother Mingo decided to delay going to law school and help us out that we started growing.”

By 1997, the brothers had expanded Wahoo’s into eight locations and had divided running the company along their individual strengths, with Ed taking on expansion and real estate. As Wahoo’s grew, the unique nature of running a family business revealed itself.

“Luckily we all got along. In a family business, you have to blend the personal and the corporate. Risks that we took and decisions that we made didn’t affect only me, but the whole family. I learned what my strengths were and weren’t and how to let go of certain things because at the end of the day we all had to sit around the same table.”

Ed and his brothers also learned that no matter how well they worked together or how effectively they divided labor and responsibilities, there were always outside factors to contend with. For instance, when the brothers experienced their first economic recession in the early 90s, the learning curve was steep.

“During that first recession, we were very close to going under. We actually had to sell one of our mother’s properties to get through. After that, we always made sure we had enough cash on hand to last through at least a year. I learned that if you plan correctly and don’t overleverage yourself, you can weather a lot of storms.”

Since then, the brothers have survived four recessions, and Wahoo’s has become a household name. Looking back, Ed marvels at how far they have come since their start.

“We’ve been together now for 33 years, and I’ve learned an incredible amount from the experience. I’ve also had a mentor for the last 15 years, so that’s taught me a lot as well. But when I think back, I think of how much trouble we would have saved with a real game plan and a mentor from the start.”

As he reflects on his journey to become a restaurateur, Ed attributes much of his success to knowing when to ask for help and learning from those that are experts in their fields. Now, Ed hopes to be a mentor to students seeking advice and help on their entrepreneurial ventures.

Today, Ed is busier than ever. When not at the restaurants, surfing, or serving the community, Ed finds time to mentor aspiring restaurateurs and has become involved with UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center, where he is helping to launch a program focused on family businesses.

“A family business is a very specific enterprise. There are expectations, relationships, and dynamics that don’t exist in other types of business. Also, family businesses are generational. I see some family businesses where the kids don’t want to be a part of it at first. In Asian immigrant communities, where a lot of small businesses were started in specific industries, the first generation may not want to be known as the ‘Donut Guy’ or the ‘Dry Cleaner Girl’, but when they realize the potential to make a great living, they come back. 

Something at UCI that excites me is a focus on bridging the gap between parents and kids in family businesses. A lot of the younger generation students have ideas about how to modernize or run the business but can run into roadblocks due to tradition or complacency with their parents. We are building programs to bridge those two generations and help them work together and share their ideas.”

You can connect with Ed at the UCI ANTrepreneur Center or on LinkedIn here. For more information on Ed or the UCI Leadership Series, please contact Matt Princetta, Director of Development, Student Success at mprincet@uci.edu. To give a gift and support the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, click here.