Why Poke is the Next Big Thing in Fast Casual
Proof positive that poke has finally evolved from fad to trend: Celebrities are hungry for the stuff. Actress Kate Hudson has Postmates deliver fresh poke from Santa Monica’s Sweetfin Poke to her home. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen, Megan Fox, Howie Mandel, and Barry Bonds are regulars at the restaurant, located just a few blocks from the beach.
Another indication poke has arrived: Fast casuals like Sweetfin are springing up all over the country and serving the dish.
Poke (pronounced poh-KAY) is a raw, marinated fish salad that originated in Hawaii as a snack or appetizer made from leftover fish. Recently, though, it’s evolved into a popular entrée that’s easily customizable and eaten on the go. The dish includes raw, sushi-grade fish that’s typically combined with condiments like salt, pepper, and soy sauce, then mixed in a bowl with eclectic toppings.
In the Los Angeles area alone, at least 50 poke restaurants have opened in the past year, estimates Seth Cohen, Sweetfin’s cofounder.
“I’m getting a little nervous, because there seems to be a bit of poke fatigue in the Los Angeles food media,” he says, adding that it feels like every time a frozen yogurt bar closes, it’s replaced by a poke shop.
A recent consumer survey by Datassential, the food industry research specialist, indicates that 24 percent of consumers say they want to try poke, but only 13 percent say they already have. Menu penetration sits at a meager 2 percent, meaning there’s plenty of room for poke to spawn.
“Think of poke as a next-level iteration of sushi,” says Renee Lee, publications specialist at Datassential. Poke bars, she says, are replacing or complementing traditional salad bars at West Coast retail outlets, including some Whole Foods and even Costco locations.
Poke’s popularity emerges from the meet-up of three powerful consumer trends: healthier food, customization, and the cultural love of eating from bowls. What’s more, a typical poke meal costs about half as much as a sushi meal.
Cost also explains why poke is showing up in so many fast-casual locations. It’s far less expensive to open a poke-serving restaurant than a conventional fast-food restaurant. After all, operators don’t need all of the expensive equipment like ovens, fryers, and grills that can easily cost $250,000.
For a poke restaurant, all that’s really needed is good refrigeration and a decent prep area, which can cost about one-quarter that of a traditional fast-food restaurant, Cohen says.
“The barriers to entry are much lower than average [quick serves],” he says.
The money that Cohen and his partners saved on kitchen costs was directed toward interior design, he says, which includes custom wood and marble.
Cohen, 28, grew up in Southern California and learned to love poke on several trips to Hawaii. He and his business partners, Alan Nathan and Brett Nestadt—along with executive chef Dakota Weiss—spent two years researching the concept before opening about one year ago.
The group plans to open four more Southern California locations over the next year before expanding up and down both coasts. Cohen vividly remembers a line forming hours before open on the restaurant’s first day.
“We knew we had a hit on our hands when people kept coming back,” he says.
Sweetfin’s poke is unconventional and typically infused with California flavors, which are based on whatever looks most interesting at the local farmer’s market.
The restaurant briefly tried a vegan option, but it bombed. “I guess that makes sense,” Cohen says. “Why come to a poke place to eat tofu?”
While many foodies are familiar with poke, Cohen thinks typical Americans have a learning curve when it comes to the dish. “If you walked down the street and polled 10 people, I’d say nine wouldn’t know what it is,” he says.
Across the country, in New York City, Drew Crane, 30, and his business partner Bryan Cowan, 29, recently opened the fast casual Wisefish Poke. “We’re not trying to re-create Hawaiian poke, but give it more of a mainland spin,” Cowan says.
Crane became enamored with poke during a family trip to Hawaii in 2012. When he returned to New York, he started preparing it for friends, who loved it. After several years of research, Wisefish Poke opened in Manhattan in January.
“The lines have been out the door since we opened,” Crane says. To make the lines at Wisefish a bit shorter, iPad-carrying team members show photos of the daily offerings to folks in line and take their orders. The most popular items are the salmon and tuna bowls.
One problem the Wisefish team has faced since opening is competition. At the time it opened, few other fast-casual restaurants in New York were selling poke, but that’s since changed.
Probably the biggest problem about running a poke restaurant, though, is the product.
“Fish has short expiration dates,” Cowan says, noting the need to purchase fresh fish.
Cowan still remembers the effusively complimentary customer who told him that the fish was cooked perfectly.
“When I told him it was raw, he was shocked,” he says.
This story originally appeared in QSR's August 2016 issue with the title "Poke Around."