DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
"I don't know if opening a business is something that you can ever really be ready for. It completely changes your life. Suddenly you are up at crazy hours and you just have to go with it."
The Pietsch siblings, Stephanie, left, Mike, center, and Noel, brought the California-based, surf-themed Wahoo's Fish Taco franchise to Hawaii because they thought it would be a good fit. Business has been booming at their Ward complex site and they now have 45 employees.
Yahoo for Wahoo's
The three Pietsch siblings have turned Wahoo's Fish Taco in the Ward complex into one of the chain's top sales leaders after just five months of operation
HAVE FUN. Eat well. Play well. Lead a full, active lifestyle.
That's the atmosphere that the Pietsch siblings -- Stephanie, Mike and Noel -- strive to deliver at their newly opened franchise, Wahoo's Fish Taco, and the words that best sum up their approach to life as young entrepreneurs in Honolulu's changing urban environment.
"None of us ever wanted to go into the restaurant industry, but we believed in the Wahoo's concept and the need for it here," said Stephanie, 31, the brainchild behind the venture, who 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.
So far, Stephanie's instincts appear to have been right. As of its January opening, the Honolulu franchise had surpassed all expectations of the Pietsch family as well as Eduardo and Mingo Lee and Wing Lam, sibling owners of the California-based chain.
"It's taken total commitment," said Stephanie, as she compared the opening of Wahoo's Fish Taco in Honolulu to having a child. "I don't know if opening a business is something that you can ever really be ready for. It completely changes your life. Suddenly you are up at crazy hours and you just have to go with it."
Wahoo's Fish Taco, a California-based, surf-themed restaurant chain, was started by three brothers, so it's only fitting that three siblings should open the first Hawaii franchise. Wahoo's Inc., founded in 1988, now has about 40 company-owned and franchised restaurants in California, Colorado, Texas and Hawaii. While other entrepreneurs previously had attempted to bring the chain to the Aloha State, it took the Pietsch family to convince the chain's owners that the time was right to expand their concept to Hawaii.
"We are pleased to welcome the Pietsch family as our Hawaii partners," Lam said in an earlier press release. "Like us, they are three siblings who want to work together to create a new kind of dining experience."
The three children of Michael Pietsch, who owns Title Guaranty of Hawaii Inc. along with his two brothers, pooled their resources and took out a bank loan to bring Wahoo's Fish Taco farther south of the border. The Punahou graduates have deep roots in Hawaii and are descended from the developer who built the former Kahala Hilton.
The partnership came about as a result of a chance meeting between Lam and Stephanie, who was working in sports marketing in Los Angeles. A business friendship developed from the meeting and soon Stephanie found herself bringing Lam and his brothers to Hawaii for a surf trip and an opportunity to consider her family as prospective franchisees.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Pietsch family of brother Mike, left, and his two sisters, Stephanie, second from left, and Noel, have turned Wahoo's Fish Taco, which has a Mexican-, Brazilian- and Asian-influenced menu, into one of the chain's top sales producers. Stephanie, who used to work for the Anaheim Angels, met one of the owners of the California-based chain during a chance meeting and hit it off. Jose Morales, right, is the cook.
"Wahoo's only has about 40 franchises, and they are really particular about who they partner with, so it was really important for them to like us," Stephanie said. "They knew it was only a matter of time before Wahoo's came to Hawaii, but it had to be right."
At the same time, Stephanie set about convincing her younger brother Mike, 28, and younger sister Noel, 24, that the Pietsch family should team up to bring another business to Hawaii.
"Bringing Wahoo's to Hawaii was really a no-brainer," said Noel, who was first exposed to the chain while going to school and hanging out with the surfing crowd at the University of Southern California. "If there was even a possibility that Wahoo's was coming to Hawaii, I knew that we had to be involved."
Wahoo's Fish Taco has a Mexican-, Brazilian- and Asian-influenced menu while the restaurants have a Hawaiian North Shore vibe, according to www.wahoos.com. The company's signature taco is made with grilled wahoo, known locally as ono, but it also uses mahi mahi and offers other meats as well as vegetarian selections.
Noel took a leave of absence from her job as a film producer with Edgy Lee, and brother Mike left his job working in real estate at Title Guaranty to help bring the restaurant to the newly renovated Ward complex. The three further expanded the family aspect of the business by recruiting calabash cousin Heather Avery to serve as general manager and, eventually, training and expansion coordinator for the operation.
Avery, who was working as assistant manager of Roy's in Newport Beach and had previously helped Ruth's Chris Steak House open nine outlets, said joining the Pietsch family in their new endeavor was an adventure that made it worth her while to return home.
"We used to spend our days running and playing on the sandy beaches of Honolulu and Kauai, and now we're all tackling this business with both hands," Avery said. "They are all very motivated and ambitious young individuals who bring an incredible variety of strengths to the table, and I'm proud to work with them."
In the early days of the business, Honolulu's tight labor market contributed to the startup chaos, said Mike, who runs the business and expansion side of the operation for Wahoo's Fish Taco.
"From the first day, we were food prep people, chefs and dishwashers," Mike said. "We were so short-staffed that we had to call in friends and other family members to help us out -- at one point, we had a pilot, a doctor, a Realtor, and an orthodontist in the kitchen washing dishes."
Early customers reported that lunch lines snaked clear around the building as Hawaii eaters turned out in droves to sample a new island offering.
"The mainland trainers that came to help us open said that they'd never seen anything like it," Mike said.
It took Noel just one 20-hour-day at Wahoo's Fish Taco to realize that she was going to have to rethink her plan to limit her role in the operation to part time.
"I was in the kitchen making chips straight for several hours when I realized that this was it -- Wahoo's was now my life," Noel said, adding that she has since taken a leave of absence from her film career.
Five months into the operation, the Pietsch family has built up their staff to 45 employees and moved into one of the top-producing sales slots for the entire Wahoo's Fish Taco chain, Mike said.
"Eventually, we'd like to bring eight to 10 more Wahoo's Fish Taco restaurants to other Hawaii locations," he said.
Michael Pietsch, chief executive of Title Guaranty, said he couldn't be more proud of his children, who have inherited a family work ethic that goes back generations.
"I'm very proud that they've taken something from scratch and had to learn an industry all on their own," Pietsch said. "The restaurant business is 24/7, but by working together they have an opportunity to recharge. They complement each other."