Cooper Wahlo is the owner of Mahana Fresh in Fargo, North Dakota.
Each day, Wahlo helps customers eat well and live better by serving health-conscious meals that are a cross between Chipotle and Crisp & Green.
A Woodbury, Minnesota native, Wahlo didn’t grow up seeking to become a restaurant owner, but that doesn’t mean his childhood wasn’t rife with opportunity.
“I wasn’t used to anything other than what Woodbury had to offer, but I still got exposed to a lot of great opportunities,” says Wahlo, who during his youth excelled on the football field, which netted him an athletic scholarship from North Dakota State University.
After becoming a member of the decorated Bison football program, America’s Game dominated Wahlo’s focus and attention, but during that time it simultaneously instilled key personality traits that have since proven to be more valuable than any play the ex-wideout ever made on the gridiron.
“How to grind, hustle, and work your butt off,” Wahlo cites as his main takeaways from the game of football, a list the business-savvy restauranteur now employs every day.
“As an entrepreneur, my mentality is to get things done at all costs.”
Despite growing up in the Twin Cities, which currently has a population of 3.4 million people, Wahlo remained in Fargo (pop. 121,889) after graduation.
His wife is originally from Jamestown, North Dakota, and Wahlo insists that although Fargo isn’t as popular as the Twin Cities, it’s still a great place to live.
“Fargo isn’t a bad area. A lot of people give it flak, but it’s grown on me,” Wahlo says.
“When I was here from 2009-2014, I did a lot of growing up, so in many ways I grew up here in Fargo.”
In addition to owning and operating Mahana Fresh, Wahlo works full-time as a New Production Introduction Manager for Fargo Assembly.
He also has two kids, plus a third on the way.
All these responsibilities force Wahlo to work extremely hard, and the reality is that right now his life is moving at a frenetic pace, something he has learned to accept in order to not become disconnected from the ones who love him most.
“The truth is there is no balance,” Wahlo says with a laugh, in response to how he maintains a work-life balance.
“I always make sure I get the important things done, but I also know that I’m not going to get everything done. That’s good because then when I come home I can spend time with my kids and be present in the moment. There are some nights where I might have to take a phone call, but for the most part I spend a solid two hours with the kids every night.”
Having a full-time job and kids would be enough commitment for most people, but back in 2019 Wahlo found himself questioning the trajectory of his life.
Yes, he was happily married and enjoyed every second of being a father, but professionally, something was missing.
“One day it hit me that if I died the next day, from a business perspective, I would be leaving nothing behind,” Wahlo recalls of that pivotal moment in his life.
Soon after his epiphany, Wahlo invested in real estate in Macon, Georgia because he wanted to develop his financial portfolio.
The idea was that eventually he would generate enough money from his real estate ventures so that he wouldn’t need to hold a traditional 9-5 job, but that pursuit was short-lived as Wahlo decided to sell the Georgia properties.
His craving for a higher purpose still not sated, Wahlo later received a random email that in just a few short months would lead to his biggest decision yet.
“The email was from a real estate guy talking about why people should get into franchising, specifically with Mahana Fresh,” explains Wahlo, who then did some research and realized that Fargo was an untapped market for Mahana Fresh.
“I thought the concept could do great here, and then I asked a couple business owners and friends what they thought, and they loved the idea.”
Initially, Wahlo was attracted to the Mahana Fresh brand because, as a former college football player who still loves to work out, combining a healthy lifestyle with nutritious food was a mission statement he could passionately endorse.
“I’m not 100% healthy, but I like to eat healthy and have options. Mahana Fresh matched that lifestyle and it was something that I could get behind and support as a brand,” Wahlo says.
Armed with the confidence that Mahana Fresh could be profitable in Fargo, Wahlo reached out to the guy who sent him the email about franchising.
That was in March 2020.
Fast forward two years, and Mahana Fresh opened to the general public on March 5th, 2022.
During that 24-month period, there were myriad sleepless nights and constant occurrences of self-doubt, but Wahlo endured, and he is now ready for the next stage of business ownership.
“Construction was a beast, issues came up, and I was doing meetings and emailing throughout the day, all while having a 9-5 job and a family,” Wahlo says.
“I am thankful I brought on a general manager at the beginning of the year because she’s been handling a lot of tasks, but it’s still been a lot. There are a few things we still have to tweak, and I’m sure there will be more things to address as we move forward. As they say: new levels, new devils.”
For now, Wahlo will continue refining the systems and processes in place at Mahana Fresh so that he can best optimize his business, and if the past is any indicator, eventually Wahlo will find that hallowed equilibrium that will catapult him into the next stratosphere of financial success.
And once Wahlo arrives, don’t expect complacency to then emerge, because he still won’t be finished.
“My goal is to have twenty stores [of Mahana Fresh] in the Midwest in the next ten years,” Wahlo says.
“Ultimately, I want to get to the point where I have financial freedom and options to do what I want, when I want.”
But achieving those results isn’t just about exorcising those demons that cropped up back in 2019 when Wahlo was left questioning his imprint on the world.
More than anything, Wahlo also wants to be a symbol for his children, a beacon of hope for what’s possible if an individual decides to break free from monotony’s restraints and push forward into the unknown.
“I want them [my kids] to know that they can do whatever they want and that they don’t have to let people put them in a box,” Wahlo says.
“There are different ways of living life. If they want to do the traditional route, that’s no problem, but it will be a choice and not because they have to.” QS
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