In the winter of 2015, Los Angeles was in the midst of an all-out poke craze: Restaurants had popped up from Glendale to Santa Monica serving their versions of poke, a beloved Hawaiian dish made with diced raw fish and various ingredients like seaweed and roasted kukui nuts. By spring 2016, Spinfish Poke House had entered the field with a Pasadena location and quickly spread to five locations including one in Jakarta, Indonesia. A Los Angeles Times story about the poke trend noted how popular the restaurant was, urging would-be diners not to be “dissuaded by the line — it moves quickly.” Fast-forward to this October and all of Spinfish’s restaurants, save for the lone Indonesian outpost, have permanently shuttered.
Spinfish is not alone. Last fall, Chicago-based chain FinFin Poke called it quits at all five of its restaurants just days after opening a new location, claiming the restaurants simply weren’t profitable enough to stay afloat. In September, New York mini-chain Sweetcatch Poke filed for bankruptcy. Owner Bobby Kwak claimed the restaurant group still had legs and was in the process of being sold to new ownership — but former Sweetcatch consulting chef Lee Anne Wong cast doubt, suggesting the company may have missed the boat. “Poke in freezing wintertime is not appealing,” Wong told Eater NY, “and Sweetcatch got into the market when the poke craze had already peaked.”
The swath of recent closures and bankruptcy filings seem to indicate, anecdotally at least, that this fast-casual craze is finally leveling off — but is the poke market truly saturated?
Data shows poke was truly having a moment in the summer of 2016, with Foursquare data revealing the number of Hawaiian restaurants, including those that served poke, doubling from 2014 to 2016. And despite naysayers, the trend continues to spread: Earlier this year, both Red Lobster and the Cheesecake Factory, restaurants with zero ties to Hawaiian cuisine, added versions of poke to their menus.
Consumers are hungrier than ever for raw seafood, says Lizzy Freier, managing editor for restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic. “[Poke has] definitely gone mainstream,” she tells Eater via email, “but we haven’t yet seen a slowing of the trend.” Major chains, including Pokeworks and the maligned Aloha Poke Co., have continued to grow significantly over the past year, in terms of both units and sales: According to Technomic’s numbers, Pokeworks’ sales are up 105 percent in the past year, with number of units up 80 percent. Aloha Poke Co.’s sales are up nearly 46 percent year over year, with units up 40 percent. Poke mentions on menus overall have increased by 21 percent over the past year, according to the firm.
Thanks to local tastes for healthy, convenient food options, Southern California was unsurprisingly the epicenter for the mainland poke trend. Poke proponents touted the ease with which the Hawaiian dish adapted to fast-casual restaurant formats. Poke, they said, took the things people already loved about sushi and offered it at a more affordable price. And poke restaurants incorporated a cornerstone of fast-casual dining into the format: customization and convenience in a bowl.
But many poke entrepreneurs may have underestimated the nuances of doing the dish well. “A lot of people just jumped into it like this was frozen yogurt or something,” says Eric Cho, co-founder of LA-based poke and ceviche chain TikiFish. Cho and his partners opened their first location in 2016 with help from veteran chefs well-versed in sushi, and waited several years before expanding with a second location. “Realistically the concept is not as simple as frozen yogurt,” he says. “You can’t just put a mix into… a machine and then all of a sudden it comes out tasting great.”
Cho says he and his partners thought strategically about their expansion and kept a close eye on maintaining quality. “Our menu is made maybe not as extensive as some other places, but there’s a reason why: because we’re making almost everything from scratch,” he says. Tikifish also stayed nimble by not branding itself specifically as a poke restaurant, allowing it to diversify its menu into Latin American and Filipino versions of citrus-marinated fish. Still, poke makes up 90 percent of the concept’s sales.
Jon Alexis, co-owner of fast-growing Dallas poke chain Malibu Poke, agrees that developing a successful fast-casual poke concept isn’t as easy as people think. Alexis, who also runs one of Dallas’s most respected seafood restaurants, TJ’s Seafood Market & Grill, opened the first Malibu Poke among the already-humming Dallas poke market last November with the backing of venture capitalists. The company now has plans to open two additional locations in Dallas and Austin in the coming months. (Alexis says he’s already in talks with a landlord for a second Austin restaurant.)
While Malibu Poke is primed for growth, Alexis says he’s witnessed many competitors closing or moving away from poke — especially those who were unfamiliar with fish sourcing or the volume of fish required to supply such restaurants. “So much of poke has become a race to the bottom in terms of price and a race to the bottom in terms of quality,” he says. “That is why you’re starting to see a little bit of the bubble bursting [because] at the end of the day, who wants mediocre raw fish?”
Alexis says that in developing his restaurant format, he also visited other poke restaurants and found that the process was often confusing and took longer than a typical fast-casual restaurant. “Everybody wants to give people all these options [for poke], but the staff couldn’t tell you what the ingredients were, the staff couldn’t tell you where the ingredients came from, and the line took forever to move,” he says. In order to streamline the ordering process and speed up the line, Malibu Poke features a self-serve kiosk ordering system (armed with facial recognition technology) that gets customers acquainted with toppings that might be unfamiliar.
Alexis seems confident that Malibu Poke will outlast the competition. “Remember when there was a [frozen] yogurt shop on every corner? That was never going to last, but that doesn’t mean no one wants yogurt anymore,” he says. “Just the good ones stuck around.”
Mainland Poke owner Ari Kahan believes that talk of a possible implosion of the poke trend is overblown, and overlooks other, less buzzy trends in the restaurant and retail industry. “I think poke just happened to be the most visible category that currently exists just because it had all the hype,” he says. “It is incredibly popular and a lot of people are looking at it.” Kahan says that in spite of talk about market saturation, his company — currently with four Los Angeles-area locations — still sees room to grow.
However, Kahan warns that there’s potential to turn consumers off to poke if the market gets filled with too many restaurants serving bad bowls. “You’re gonna see a lot of people who are taking the standard poke shortcut which is […] not actually breaking down fish in-house,” he says. “It’s important to see how that has an impact on the eventual growth of the category, because the effect that ultimately has is that the category gets cheapened.”
Cho remains optimistic that discerning poke devotees will continue to seek out the higher-quality options. “I think it’s just going to evolve a little bit,” he says, “and people are going to be more particular about which restaurants they go to.”
Brenna Houck is the editor of Eater Detroit and an Eater.com reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus