Baja Fresh's Growth Plan Heats up Rivalry Between Taco Chains

By JENNIFER BELLANTONIO
Orange County Business Journal

Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is stepping up its push onto Wahoo's Fish Tacos home turf.

Thousand Oaks-based Baja Fresh, purchased by Wendy's International Inc. in June, plans to open up to five more Orange County eateries in the next year or so. That's on top of five new spots opened this year, including in Corona del Mar and San Clemente.

"We love Orange County," said Greg Dollarhyde, Baja Fresh's chief executive. "It's done very well for us."

The expansion stands to up the ante for Santa Ana-based Wahoo's. Baja Fresh, which started with one Orange County restaurant in 1996, now has about 20 units many within miles of a Wahoo's.

So far, the war has been civil. "May the best man win," said Wing Lam, co-owner and marketing director at Wahoo's. "At the end of the day, the key to success is don't bag on each other within the fresh-Mex category."

Dollarhyde said he isn't too worried about competition, which is thick in Orange County with Carlsbad-based Rubio's Baja Grill, mom-and-pop taco stands and, of course, Wahoo's, which draws crowds with edgy restaurants speckled with surf stickers.

"Personally I like Wahoo's," Dollarhyde said. "It (has) a different crowd and different food than Baja Fresh." Baja Fresh has its own niche, Dollarhyde said, catering to an older crowd than Wahoo's.

Lam is used to other Mexican eateries popping up around his chain. In the old days, he said, it was Wahoo's vs. Rubio's. "People would ask me all the time if I was worried," he said.

Lam and Rubio's founder, Ralph Rubio, both went to San Diego State University, he said. The pair went to Mexico for spring breaks, which gave them ideas for restaurant chains.

"It's not like we invented anything," Lam said. "We both took something from the other side of the border."

But Baja Fresh has big ambitions and a big parent in Wendy's. The company first focused its stores mainly in Irvine and Costa Mesa. But Dollarhyde said Baja Fresh, which plans to have 210 restaurants in 16 states by year's end, now is targeting the entire county.

"We see Orange County as a rapidly growing market," Dollarhyde said. "And a market that's rewarding."

Baja Fresh stores average $1.5 million in sales each year, Dollarhyde said. The company says it costs about $500,000 to $600,000 to open a new restaurant. It makes the money back in about two to four years, he said.

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