Earlier this month, a fast-casual Santa Monica restaurant that serves a take on the famous Hawaiian dish poke (pronounced poh-kay) received an undisclosed amount of funding for further expansion in Southern California. Not only did Sweetfin Poké secure financing for its growth, it also got David Swinghamer — the longtime Danny Meyer associate who was a founding partner of Union Square Hospitality Group and former Shake Shack CEO — on board as a "strategic advisor."
While Sweetfin's owners might have the power in their corner right now, they're not the only restaurant operators trying to make a go of fast-casual poke (especially in Los Angeles). In New York City, Wisefish Poké is gearing up to open soon and — thanks to the relative ease of getting a poke restaurant off the ground, the dish's appeal to health-conscious consumers, and the persistent trend of bowl foods — you better believe the concept is scalable. Other names to keep an eye on include the bicoastal Pokéworks, Mainland Poké Shop (LA), Poké Bar (LA), and Poké Go (San Diego).
"I'm not surprised poke is becoming so popular in the continental U.S., just surprised that it took so long," says Hawaii-based food writer Martha Cheng. "People already love sushi, raw fish, and ceviche; poke seems like a natural inclusion." There's no denying the trend. Poke is coming for us all. But can fast-casual raw fish really work?
What Is Poke?
Poke is a classic Hawaiian dish comprised of sliced, raw fish and various mix-ins. Most traditionally, poke was made from fish, salt, local seaweeds, and chopped Hawaiian kukui nuts. "All 'poke' means is to 'cut crosswise into pieces,'" explains Cheng. "It's unclear when 'poke' started being associated with what we know now as poke, but it might have been as late as the '60s." Legendary Hawaiian chef Alan Wong provides a bit more context: "A long time ago, it was sustenance and a way to eat and survive. Poke in Hawaii was originally reef fish, scored and seasoned only with sea salt, seaweed, or roasted kukui. Fast-forward to today, and it has survived all these years, getting more creative as the years go by."
"Poke speaks to the culinary palate of Hawaii."
Today, poke comes in various permutations. "The three most common types of poke you see in Hawaii are shoyu poke (ahi, soy sauce, sesame oil, green and white onions, maybe a tiny bit of chili); limu or Hawaiian-style poke (ahi, limu, salt, green and white onions, inamona — roasted, chopped kukui nuts); spicy ahi poke (ahi and a creamy, spicy mayo sauce with tobiko)," Cheng says. Other popular iterations include poke made with octopus, mussels, or even crab. Lately, more and more poke can be found served over rice.
"We're surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and our fish is very fresh, so eating raw fish dishes comes naturally," explains Wong. "It is made in so many different ways and served at many different occasions."
While poke is available on many restaurant menus in Hawaii, locals tend to get poke from more casual, neighborhood carry-out eateries, and even grocery stores or general stores. One of the most popular poke vendors in Hawaii is the supermarket chain Foodland. According to Foodland's chef Keoni Chang, the secret to good poke is the quality of "the core ingredients," regardless of what fish or add-ins are used. After that, it's about "finding the right balance." He gives as examples of bad poke elements: "pieces of ahi with sinew in them that get stuck in your teeth; too much soy sauce; or too much of one ingredient." Poke, he adds, "speaks to the culinary palate of Hawaii."
Why Take Poke Fast-Casual?
There's a short answer and a long answer as to why so much of the recent poke action around is happening the fast-casual sphere. The short answer is that the future really is fancy chains and every food entrepreneur just wants a crack at creating the next (foodborne-illness-free) Chipotle. If a dish is worth selling, it's worth selling in a fast-casual concept.
"Poke is familiar, but it also has that sense of discovery."
The longer answer is that poke is actually a great candidate for fast-casualification, from both a culinary and operations standpoint. For the new wave of poke purveyors going fast-casual, the popularity of sushi is an entry point. Drew Crane is the co-founder of Wisefish Poké, the fast-casual poke restaurant opening soon in New York City. "When I first tried poke," he says, "I was shocked that I hadn't had it before, because it's familiar; people are familiar with sushi and they like those flavors. There's a lot of the same flavors in poke, but it's also new and exciting and something that people really haven't seen before. It's got that sense of discovery, but at the same time, something that feels very comfortable."
"We have gotten to the point where so many people have an appreciation for raw fish, and quality raw fish," says Sweetfin co-founder Brett Nestadt. He puts the Sweetfin M.O. into that context, explaining that the restaurant is "giving people these flavors from sushi, at a lower price point, quickly and affordably."
Another reason why poke is sparking the interest of the fast-casual set is that it's so flexible. Customization has long been a hallmark of this newish breed of counter-service restaurants, and it turns out poke lends itself to this system well. Customers can choose their fish, mix-ins, and sauces and still wind up with something that feels, especially to those less familiar with the dish, like poke. This customization is on offer at many of the new fast-casual players like Pokéworks, Wisefish Poké, and Sweetfin. "The possibilities are endless with poke," says Brennan. "You can do it with just about anything. I think what's nice is that wherever you are in the U.S., whatever is freshest to you is wonderful to poke-ize, so to speak."
Another added bonus: Poke, especially when diner can customize what goes into it, is healthy. "The way that we serve our poke really lends itself to the way that people are dieting or trying to eat healthy," says Sweetfin co-founder Seth Cohen. "Whether it is the gluten-free soy sauces that we use or the different bases that are low in carbohydrates and high in protein." At its core, poke is light and fresh, two very appealing adjectives for many diners.
It also helps that poke bowls come in, well, bowls. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed "bowls are the new plates," reporting that "sales of bowls are rising as Americans prefer more casual, one-course meals that layer flavors." Bowls tie in with the "fast" aspect of fast-casual: convenient meals that are easy to eat quickly in the restaurant or carried out to a desk or dinner table. Nestadt calls bowls "the best form of food delivery now," especially for health-conscious diners and carb-avoiders.
From an operations perspective, quick-service restaurants that have proper health and safety systems might be in a better position than smaller businesses to serve high volumes of raw fish. Of the chefs and operators Eater spoke with, several noted that higher volume leads to fresher product. "We are going through so much product, nothing sits," explains Cohen. "We pretty much use nothing left over from one day to the next. It's just not an issue." Mikala Brennan, the Hawaii-native and DC chef/restaurant owner behind the Hula Girl truck and now full-service Hula Girl Bar & Grill, notes another key benefit of high-volume poke is being able to get better prices on larger fish orders. For chains like Sweetfin, scale should theoretically allow the brand to get even better rates from distributors.
For food writer and Food Is The New Rock host Zach Brooks, the fast rise of poke in his home base of Los Angeles is inexplicably linked to the rise of fast-casual. "It was a perfect storm really," he says of the trend in Los Angeles. "I think the reason it exploded the way it did is because poke is an easy concept to get off the ground — relatively speaking. You don't need a hood, for example, or a ton of space to execute the concept. So once the first place launched, it was easy for everybody else to rush to open their concepts."
Foodland's Keoni Chang, who oversees the culinary operations of the multiple Foodland locations, also points out that getting a team equipped to properly serve poke can be easier than other culinary endeavors. "At the end of the day, you're working with raw ingredients and then you're mixing," notes Chang. "There's not the application of heat. There's not the same 'need;' as in baking, where you're dealing with science."
(That said, would-be restaurant operators do need to make sure staff has the knowledge and knife skills to be dealing with raw fish. "We are dealing with proteins that are very sensitive," says Cohen. "It is not like a burger concept, where we are shipping in frozen patties, and we can just throw them on the grill. When we are getting the fish, often times we are breaking down the whole fish, or we are breaking down parts of the fish." Add to that the fact that high-quality fish is expensive, and a skilled culinary staff becomes even more important.)
But These Fast-Casual Operators Aren't Hawaiian?
Diners are becoming more interested in Hawaiian food. Or, rather, all sorts of foods they maybe aren't as familiar with. "I believe it's all a part of the global cuisine movement happening all over the world," says chef Wong. "People are traveling much more, food TV is also introducing flavors and dishes that, in the past, you had to travel to experience. Now it is all accessible." Several high-profile restaurant openings of the past few years have showcased bold and creative Hawaiian fare, as at Noreetuh in New York City or at Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, one of 2015's best new restaurants and an Eater Award winner. Godfather of Hawaiian cuisine Sam Choy puts it simply: "I have written three best-selling books on poke, done major events all over the U.S. on poke... so no, I am not surprised at all!"
But there's a theme among the origin stories of many of these fast-casual poke restaurants. Founder(s) enjoy travel(s) in Hawaii, love poke while there, and, shocked when it isn't more readily available at home on the mainland, decide to open a poke shop all their own. For the reasons outlined above, they decide to take it fast-casual, since it seems marketable, scalable, and, most importantly, profitable. But poke is a dish with a long, winding history in Hawaii. Should diners be concerned by what could be seen as appropriating?
To a certain extent, the reliance on sushi flavors has pushed the product away from its Hawaiian roots. "I think the term poke has now been co-opted by a lot of these new places [in LA] as a more marketable name for what a lot of people might have called a chirashi bowl at one time," says Brooks. "If you are a hardcore poke fan, looking for something similar to what you get in Hawaii, you will find little to be happy about at a lot of these new places. But, as the next evolution of the current fad of putting protein and toppings on grain-filled bowls, it's finding a lot of fans." Martha Cheng also points out that this "rise of poke, in particular, ahi poke, which is pretty much the majority of the poke out there," is coming "at a time when tuna stocks in the ocean are declining."
For Mikala Brennan, there are both practical and philosophical issues with mainlanders serving poke, but at the end of the day she's all for it. "It doesn't concern me. I think that they can put the flavors together in the bowl and make a 'poke,'" she says. "What I find is that from a Hawaiian standpoint, there are specific ratios that we are used to in a recipe. I think that sometimes mainland people might use a little too much sesame or a little too much soy." She goes on to explain when it comes to the recipe, Hawaiian preferences may just be that: preferences. "I would say it's like a Thanksgiving stuffing. You grow up with certain ways of doing things. Those of us from Hawaii, we do have a certain way and recipe that we stick to — but that doesn't mean that somebody who hasn't ever lived in Hawaii can't make a poke." Still, she does wonder whether someone who isn't from Hawaii understands "that there is a very emotional reaction for us [from Hawaii] to Hawaiian food."
Where Sam Choy says he isn't worried about non-Hawaii locals making poke "because most of them are following my recipes," Wong doesn't mind mainlanders serving poke "as long as they know what they are doing," he says. "First thing is that the fish needs to be pristine, fresh, and of the highest quality. It would help them if they had poke from someone who knew how to make it, before trying to attempt making it."
Keoni Chang agrees. "I'll use myself as an example," he says. "I am not French, and one of my jobs was being the executive sous chef at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant [in Paris], where I served French cuisine. I think it comes down to what a person's willing to do and what they're trying to achieve. The question is whether you've done your research properly: Whether you've really taken the time to understand what and why the certain ingredients go in and how they go together."
[Update 3/2/2016: An earlier version of this article spelled the dish "poké." Spelling has been changed to "poke" with an added pronunciation at first mention.]