Unlike his corporate friends, Paul Kraft dresses for work as if he’s headed for a day of surfing at Huntington Beach.
Rather than a suit and tie, Kraft’s typical business attire include board shorts, a T-shirt, flip-flops, sunglasses and a hipster hat.
That’s how you dress when the goal of your business is to bring a slice of the Southern California lifestyle to Las Vegas.
Kraft co-owns the three Wahoo’s Fish Taco locations in Southern Nevada — two in Las Vegas and one in Henderson. A second location is planned for Henderson. Kraft said he can foresee eventually having seven or eight restaurants throughout the valley, including one inside a Strip hotel-casino.
“It’s not a race and I want to grow in the right way,” Kraft said.
Kraft, a former hotel and gaming executive with Harrah’s and Embassy Suites hotels, traded in the corporate world a few years ago to run small businesses, including owning and leasing condominiums in Southern California and operating restaurants in Chicago, Atlanta and California.
Along the way, Kraft became acquainted with Eduardo Lee, Mingo Lee and Wing Lam, the Chinese-Brazilian brothers who opened the first Wahoo’s Fish Taco in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1988 with an idea to sell food to hungry surfers. That concept has grown into some 60 locations in seven states and Tokyo.
The brothers talked with Kraft about opening Wahoo’s in Phoenix, but the discussion turned toward Las Vegas.
There were some unique circumstances with Sin City, however. The restaurants needed to be open 24 hours, offer a full bars as opposed to just selling beer and wine, and gaming needed to be part of the mix.
Initially, Kraft had to make a sales pitch.
“They really wanted to see us succeed and they understood Las Vegas was a bit of a different market,” Kraft said. “They understood that with the background that I brought to this venture, that we could execute on the plan.”
All three of Kraft’s Wahoo’s operate 24 hours with a full bar. He added special bar food items to the menu to accommodate customers. There are also slot machines on the bars operated by Golden Gaming’s route operation, 15 games each in two locations and five the other restaurant.
So did the plan work?
When the first Wahoo’s opened in October 2011 on West Sunset Road near the Rainbow Boulevard-215 Beltway off-ramp, the brothers visited.
“They were like, ‘Dude, this is better than our places,’ ” Kraft said.
Several Southern California Wahoo’s restaurants are now looking to add full bars.
Kraft, along with his business partner Shelley Flandermeyer, a preschool teacher, opened their second Wahoo’s on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012 in the Boca Park Shopping Center near Summerlin. The third Wahoo’s opened a year ago on Horizon Ridge Parkway in Henderson.
Kraft said that one aspect that hasn’t changed with Las Vegas is the Wahoo’s mission: to deliver fresh, healthy, cooked-to-order food to the customers in a fun-loving environment. He credits the 105 employees who work at the three locations with embodying that atmosphere.
“We’re trying to bring a slice of California to everyday life here in Las Vegas,” Kraft said. “We want people to come to our place and leave saying the only thing missing was the ocean.”
Question: How does the gaming fit into the Wahoo’s business plan?
Answer: It’s a viable part of our business but it’s truly an incidental part of the business. We’re a restaurant first and foremost and Wahoo’s has a tremendous brand that is well-known, especially in Southern California. Gaming was an important guest amenity to bring to the neighborhood and the Wahoo’s people understood that. We could only have five slot machines in the Boca location because of city of Las Vegas ordinances. But we felt it was important to have the games, rather than not have the games.
Question: Why do you think your Wahoo’s has been successful?
Answer: We have the identical core menu that any Wahoo’s would have, but we also have breakfast items and healthy bar snacks. When you see the amount of people that are in Nevada from Southern California, that gives us great familiarity and a base for testimonials. We always hear that our food “tastes just like the Southern California.” That grounds us. We have to earn our right to be here.
We want to serve fresh-cooked food that is healthy in a fun environment with a great vibe. Our 105 employees do that. Without them, none of this would be possible.
Question: What attracted you to Wahoo’s different locations in Las Vegas and Henderson?
Answer: I found the Rainbow and Sunset location first (site of closed Rockin’ Baja Lobster). I walked in and thought it looked perfect because of all the surfing paintings and beach scenes. Everyone thought I was crazy first because it seemed like nothing was around. But nearby you have Freeman, IGT (International Game Technology), the Pepsi facility, In-N-Out’s western distribution plant and Boyd Gaming is next door in a tower. We do all our corporate catering out of the facility because it’s so large.
Boca Park is a tremendous location because having all these different types of restaurants in the center benefits everyone. They add more traffic to the center. Horizon Ridge is the first location we built from the ground up and is a great site.
Question: What brought you to the restaurant business?
Answer: I walk around our restaurants we call everyone by their first names. We know our customers. In gaming, the big casino guys walk around the floor and know their guests. You want that great interaction. That’s what I enjoy. As a small-business owner, I love the unique challenges the job provides, everything from all the administration work to busing tables during a busy lunch.
Question: What is your attitude about growing Wahoo’s?
Answer: We are always looking for any growth opportunities that fit our profile in locations where we can give back and serve the community. We want to honor the licenses we have been given and treat them with respect. With each new location, we want to make sure it’s right for our business. We also look at the charitable opportunities with each location.
Question: How is the food?
Answer: Personally, I can eat it 10 times a day. What’s nice is to see the personal trainers and the nutritionists bringing their clients in to teach them how to eat healthy. That says a lot about our food.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.