Making a splash
‘Mingo’ Lee ’90 started his successful chain of surf-themed restaurants while still cramming for exams at UCI
As an undergraduate, Renato “Mingo” Lee ’90 didn’t have time for extracurricular activities. He was too busy starting a successful restaurant chain – Wahoo’s Fish Taco.
“I spoke at the UCI All-University Leadership Conference last year, and when I saw all the students I realized that’s the kind of thing I didn’t have an opportunity to do in college because I was working,” Lee says.
Seated in his Santa Ana office wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a casual shirt, Lee looks more like a UCI undergraduate than the 36-year-old CFO/CEO of a company – one that employs 600 people and operates 39 corporate restaurants and franchises.
Lee was still a sophomore majoring in economics when he and two of his older brothers opened the first Wahoo’s in 1988 with $30,000 from their parents. Customers loved the casual ambiance (each Wahoo’s is festooned with surf/skate/snowboard stickers) and original menu.
“It was a bringing together of things we like to eat,” Lee says. The fish tacos, black beans and other fare blend the brothers’ Chinese heritage, their childhood in Brazil (where Lee grew up in the building that housed his parents’ Chinese restaurant), and their love of Mexican food, which the boys discovered after moving to California and taking surf trips south of the border.
“We ended up with a Mexican restaurant that serves teriyaki dishes,” Lee says.
Today, he balances the demands of running a company with family life (he lives in Newport Beach with his wife and two young daughters) and the desire to occasionally hit the surf.
Did his economics classes help prepare him for his job as a CEO? Sure, he says, but it’s the classes he took in humanities that left the greatest impression. Literature and art history “opened my tunnel vision,” he says.
He’s also found time for some of the extracurricular activities he missed as an undergrad. “The network of alumni that stays in Irvine has been great,” Lee says. “I’m constantly bumping into alum, and that’s proven most valuable.”