Something’s Fishy @ Wahoo’s

Three Pietsch siblings give up other careers to open Wahoo’s Fish Taco on Ward, and it’s going so well they’re planning to open a second location

Susan Sunderland
Friday - March 02, 2007
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Mike Pietsch (in aloha shirt) in the kitchen with GM Randall Transfiguracion (left) and Bryan Achay
Mike Pietsch (in aloha shirt) in the
kitchen with GM Randall
Transfiguracion (left) and Bryan Achay

Are you stoked about goinginto business for yourself? Before you paddle out into an ocean of opportunity and challenges,heed the advice of some young entrepreneurs who have learned how not to wipe out in the first year.

Stephanie Pietsch, 31, Mike Pietsch, 28, and Noel Pietsch, 25, took a chance a year ago and brought a California restaurant franchise to Honolulu. They had never been in the restaurant business, but were familiar with the Wahoo’s Fish Taco concept as avid consumers. The siblings thought it was the right time to expand the surf-theme restaurant concept to Hawaii.

Stephanie left a career in sports marketing with the Anaheim Angels baseball team to come back to Hawaii and open the first Wahoo’s Fish Taco franchise in the islands. Noel was working with Edgy Lee’s film production company, and Mike was engaged in real estate.

Wahoo’s Fish Taco, a California-based chain, was started in 1988 by three brothers, Eduardo Lee, Mingo Lee and Wing Lam. Raised in the family’s Chinese eatery business, they combined their love of surf and food to create a restaurant with an eclectic Mexican-Brazilian-Asian menu and a Hawaiian North Shore vibe.

Today there are 40 Wahoo’s in Southern California and Colorado. The Hawaii franchise at Ward Gateway Center run by the Pietsches is the top performing unit in sales.

How did these three Punahou grads and surfer siblings manage this success? And how did they avoid the fate of many start-ups that flounder in the wake and bail?

“The first six months were a blur,” Noel says, recalling the “hordes of people lining up in a carnival-like atmosphere at our restaurant.We got hit suddenly, as it happens when there’s anything new in the market. We were doing better than we ever expected,but at a frantic pace.”

Stephanie (left) and Noel Pietsch have some fun with off-duty employee Kahai Freitas (center)
Stephanie (left) and Noel Pietsch have some fun with
off-duty employee Kahai Freitas (center)

Mike says, “It takes six to eight months to build a customer base as people get to know the menu and the service concept.”

He adds,“Franchising is a good way to get into business because there are systems already in place. The one thing we weren’t prepared for is the tight labor market in Hawaii. It has taken us a year to build a really solid team. It is an ongoing battle because there is so much competition for good people.”

“What’s helped us is creating a work environment that’s family-oriented, versus having a hierarchy,” Noel offers. “We’ve gotten some of our best employees through referrals of family and friends. Being young owners, we also understand what it’s like to have balance in one’s life, so we are flexible and sensitive to needs outside of work. We embrace the philosophy of hiring for personality and training for talent.”

“We are running so much more efficiently now,” says Stephanie. “The franchise provides a support system so there’s a resource for asking questions, training, and growing the business.”

She admits,“Each one of us has made mistakes on the journey and learned from it. But with better communications,we have made the process smoother. We make time outside of the restaurant to meet face-to-face about how we see the business going.”

Noel adds,“In the beginning, you think it’s going to be a 9-to-5 job, but it’s really 24-7. We’ve learned when to turn on our sibling hat and when to turn it off to be business partners.”

Mike says,“The biggest lesson is how to communicate and how to work together as a family.You need to know when to ask for help, when to give advice, and when to keep your mouth shut.”

Among their nurturing mentors is father Michael Pietsch, founder-CEO of Title Guaranty, one of Hawaii’s largest mortgage firms,run by three brothers.

The Pietsches also have an advisory board consisting of well-known business and community leaders. There’s also the informal network of friends like downtown restaurateur Don Murphy, on whom they recently called to ask about food prep equipment.

In a small community such as Hawaii, which is more important, we ask, who you know or what you know?

Mike acknowledges that both are important, but relationships are often the lynchpin to creating opportunities and establishing credibility.

Noel advises,“You’ll meet knowledgeable people along the way. Take them out to lunch, get to know them and foster relationships.”

That’s exactly what the trio did in meeting the principals of The MacNaughton Group early on. It led to the lease of the 2,000-square-foot space at Ward Gateway, corner of Ward Avenue and Auahi Street, next to traffic magnets Starbucks and Jamba Juice.

Mike says while the rent is “extremely high” for the flagship store, he regards it a marketing investment for the location’s high visibility. “I look at it as purchasing a billboard,” he explains.

As for future expansion, he is looking at locations in West Oahu with an opening target date of 2008.

Meanwhile the clever trio has found a way to take Wahoo’s to more customers and to new locations, and it will begin rolling in about two months.

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