FARGO — Former North Dakota State Bison wide receiver Cooper Wahlo knew he wanted to enter the business world after hanging up his cleats. What he didn’t know is how quickly it would materialize.
Wahlo, who appeared in 14 games as a senior for the 2013 undefeated national championship squad, is the franchisee opening a Mahana Fresh inside the Veterans Square plaza at 3985 56th St. S. in Fargo. “I knew I wanted to do something on a bigger scale, I just didn’t know what,” Wahlo told The Forum. “Being a business owner was part of the plan, just not as quickly as I thought.”
Mahana Fresh, founder Dave Wood explained from Sarasota, Fla., is a “healthy choices” restaurant, meaning there are no microwaves or fryers to be found on site. “Our focus is on healthy choices,” he said. “What I mean by that is we’re not a health food restaurant, we’re not going to serve açai bowls. What we are is we give you choices.”
The restaurant is a counter-serve bowl concept, Wood said. Customers can select from various bases, vegetables, proteins, toppings and sauces. “We fit into a mainstream diet by giving you a healthy option of food that tastes great,” he commented.
Mahana Fresh currently has seven locations across Tampa; Charlottesville, Va.; Charlotte; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Brandon, Fla.; Arlington, Va. and Toms River, N.J. Three other locations are planned for Boca Raton, Fla.; Georgetown, Tex. and Atlanta.
Wood said that Mahana Fresh does not focus on specific geography when opening new locations, rather they prefer to find an appropriate market with local franchisees. “Instead of coming from out of town to open, we’re not doing that,” he said. “Even though we’re an out-of-town chain, our ownership is local and we feel that’s very important.”
While Mahana Fresh's restaurants sport a bright, tropical theme, Wood said he expects the brand will still fit in Fargo. “People in cold places want great food just as much as people in warm places. We all just want great food," he said.
Wahlo was exposed to Mahana Fresh while listening to a podcast. That led to a visit to Florida last year and ultimately a franchising agreement. “He came to see us in Florida last year and decided it was the right thing for him and we decided he was the right person for us,” Wood recalled.
“I heard one of the franchisees on a podcast and I looked into the concept a little bit,” Wahlo added. “I’m a health guy, I love to work out and I was looking to do something a little bit on a bigger scale for myself. I thought that this was something that fit me and my brand.”
For Wahlo, the reason for opening Mahana Fresh in Fargo was to bring a healthier dining option to the city. “It’s just a way to add more healthy options to the consumer. My personal opinion is there are not enough healthy options here in Fargo,” he said. “I thought this was an opportunity to be able to provide the community with just another place they can go and have a lot of great healthy options to choose from.”
The targeted opening date is sometime this winter, Wood said. If the pending building permit application is approved in short order, Wood said he would expect an opening date between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The permit for the $359,950 fit up of one of the suites in the plaza was undergoing review as of Monday, Aug. 30.
The location, near West Fargo Sheyenne High School along Veterans Blvd., is a rapidly expanding area, with several other new developments in the works. “It’s a great location. It’s definitely a spot in the area that’s growing. I expect a great grand opening and I expect to do pretty well at that location,” Wahlo said. “I’m sure people will definitely come on and try it with it being new.”
While he’s focused on opening his first Mahana Fresh, Wahlo said he’d be willing to open “a lot” more throughout the Midwest. “I would like to be the presence in the Midwest for the brand,” he remarked. “Again, I’ve got to see how my first one goes, but I definitely want to open multiple locations for sure.”
Wahlo said the lessons he learned while winning three national championships with the Bison have also translated to the business world. “Just being able to put in the hard work and to follow the process and the system. When you work hard, things pay off,” he said. “One thing I learned from my time there was just to be a grinder and get after it.”