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Serving Up California Love

If anyone knows how to leverage a Rolodex, it would be Wahoo’s Fish Taco co-founder Wing Lam.

Lam’s infectious desire to want to serve his community, and willingness to call on a network of relationships built across decades in the restaurant business and beyond, is what helped turn a single delivery of 300 Wahoo’s meals to Hoag Hospital in Irvine during the pandemic into a charitable program called the California Love Drop.

The group has helped build bridges between businesses and communities across Southern California.  

The Love Droppers that were initially motivated to help hospital workers in the early, heady days of last year’s lockdown now total more than 40 partner businesses, and hundreds of volunteers.

They’ve provided over 23,000 meals, drinks, personal protective equipment and other donated items to nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, students and others in need during the pandemic.

“We called each other and said ‘What are you doing?’ What are you doing?’” Lam recalled of his conversations with other business owners in the initial days following the state’s lockdown.

Many, such as Wahoo’s, were sitting on fresh food they couldn’t use. Giving it away to those who needed it, rather than throwing it out, made sense.

“We pooled our monies together and figured out what we had and what we didn’t have. We had nothing going on [in their respective businesses] so we just teamed up together. Everyone’s business took a major reset and all of a sudden we started getting traction because word got out that there was this crazy group of us that were willing to expose ourselves [to COVID] to make deliveries,” Lam recalled.

Building Momentum, Community

Once awareness of the group’s efforts spread in the press and business community, more people began reaching out to ask how they could help, or for help with their own charitable initiatives—everything ranging from students in need, to shelters serving abused women and their children.

When hundreds of police officers were dispatched around South Coast Plaza last year to ensure a planned protest didn’t impact the Costa Mesa shopping center, Wahoo’s was there to bring meals to the officers. The California Love Drop was at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital multiple times to bring meals, with Lam remembering the trucks at the back of the inundated hospital set up as makeshift morgues.

The group has driven to various parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Lam’s gone straight to friends to ask for other donations outside of food.

“The first guy I went to was [at] Vans because I knew that they had gotten ready for the U.S. Open of Surfing—that got canceled. So, I called Steve Van Doren [son of co-founder Paul Van Doren],” Lam said.

He asked Van Doren what the company planned to do with all the wallets, bandanas and hats that had been printed for the annual event of which Vans is a name sponsor. He knew the answer was nothing, so Lam asked if those items could be donated. The same thing happened with Stussy Inc. in Irvine, which sent over two pallets of branded sweatshirts and T-shirts that went to shelters supporting homeless families and orphanages.  

The Impact

Lam recalled one of the more memorable delivery days when the California Love Drop partnered with the Newport Beach Foundation to provide meals and supplies to teachers and students at Whittier Elementary School in Costa Mesa.

Lam made some calls to friends and said the group was able to turn the Foundation’s initial $2,000 budget into $25,000 so that the day entailed something more than a free meal. The day-long event required strict logistical planning to maintain social distancing with two pickup times at multiple stations around the school.

Teachers received stainless steel air fryers and Yeti travel mugs, while students took home Vans backpacks with books and school supplies.

More recently, Lam and team have been working with veterans organizations, with three events so far that includes meals, drinks and swag bags.

“It’s been super contagious,” Lam said of the involvement of other companies. “However we can help each other. We’ve got to keep the boat afloat, donate where we can, cover expenses where we can and partner up.”

Energy, Gratitude

Lam, whose Wahoo’s is the 22nd largest restaurant chain based in OC by sales, with more than $53 million in annual revenue from its 50 locations, said he’s spending anywhere from 30% to 40% of his time working on California Love Drop projects, coordinating pickups and drop-offs.

He’ll drive as far as Chula Vista, about two freeway exits from Tijuana, to deliver 30 lunches to a fire station, while making a few other deliveries along the way.

“People looked at me and said ‘You’re insane. You’re insane.’ Nope, I’m just doing what I need to do. I’ve had more energy doing this than in the last 30 years. No offense, doing a gala is nice, but you’re getting dressed [up]. You raised a lot of money for a cause, but you don’t actually touch the end user. You don’t see that little kid or that mom and the energy and gratitude that comes from them is absolutely phenomenal,” he said.

Creating Connections

In October, Lam and Charles Antis, founder and CEO of Irvine-based Antis Roofing & Waterproofing delivered a speech at the annual meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association in Anaheim to talk about how companies can give back.

The name of the talk? “What Do a Roofer and a Taco Guy Have in Common?” Turns out a lot: the California Love Drop.

Antis was profiled by the Business Journal about a year ago for his charitable giving over the years.

“I use the example of team sports,” Lam said when asked where his ability to network and connect people comes from.

“If you try to do everything by yourself, good luck—unless you’re playing tennis. But, if you’re playing a team sport, you need everybody to win. That’s what I learned as a kid. I always said if everyone’s on the same page, everyone minimizes the weakness in terms of exposure and it maximizes the output,” he said.

“I know what the expenses are at any event, so I applied the same with these deliveries. I’m going to drop food; it’s going to make an impact, but they probably want drinks. And then I said it’d be nice to give them an afternoon snack, like Yogurtland or Clif Bar. These are all my friends. So when I called [for donations], I never had to convince people.”

While Lam gets plenty of satisfaction from seeing the faces of the recipients he’s making drops to, the California Love Drop has also become an interesting case study in collaboration of the business community.

While the partner group is working with one another on drops, they’ve also created a tightknit group that helps one another out. They use their own connections and business offerings to sometimes barter for donation items or to simply help each other.

Said Lam: “I’m crazy resourceful and I will go to bat if you’re on the team. So, I go out of my way to do things because it’s a phone call away for me. That what I do for fun. All of these guys, we help each other for charity work.”  

California Love Drop Founding Group

Wahoo’s, Yogurtland, Antis Roofing & Waterproofing, 95.5 KLOS’s Heidi and Frank, Blue C Advertising, Cholula Hot Sauce, Monster Energy, Hint Water and Coyle

With Additional Support From: 

Enterprise Data Solutions, UHSM, PCMA, Subaru of America, Carslon

& Jayakumar LLP, Shimano Inc., Kirksey and Company, North Men’s Wear, Constellation Brands, Boston Beer Co., Left Coast Brewing Company, B Candy, Yeti, loanDepot, Vans, Drake’s Organic Spirits, Fortis Resource Partners and The Purist Group

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