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Makes a Move Into Fast Casual

A healthy Hawaiian staple is moving across the mainland

Is there any limit to the ways we can put food on a line and create a movement? No, we’re not talking an old school cafeteria, but taking seemingly healthy ingredients and putting them behind glass for people to make their own quick-serve, customizable lunch or dinner.

It all started when Chipotle brought Mexican food — burritos, bowls and more — to the masses and was quickly followed by toasted sub sandwiches (Potbelly Sandwich Shop), Mediterranean (Roti Mediterranean Grill), salads and grain bowls (Sweetgreen), Pizza (Blaze Pizza), Indian (SF’s Tava Indian Kitchen and New York’s IndiKitch) and Southeast Asian (ShopHouse, which is a concept that was introduced by Chipotle). Is poké now the next hot trend to make its way across the country? Poké, which means “to cut, dice or section,” traditionally, was a fast and casual raw fish salad Hawaiian fisherman would make by dicing portions of their fresh catch — usually tuna — into cubes, seasoning it with ingredients like Hawaiian sea salt, seaweed, green onions, sesame oil and soy sauce.

“To be frank, many of the places currently calling themselves “poké” shops are technically more like ‘make your own sushi bowl’ concepts,” said chef and former Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong, who is opening Sweetcatch Poké in New York with chef Deuki Hong and Circle Hospitality Group. “There’s a small hotbed of debate here in Hawaii [where Wong has been living] about all the poké that is happening on the mainland. What is poké? What are traditional styles? At what point it is no longer considered poké?”

“Poké fulfills that gap of a healthy alternative to eating fast.”
– Chef Rodelio Aglibot, FireFin Poké Shop, Chicago

04 03 poke 1Poké restaurants have started springing up in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere along the West Coast. No one company has yet had a growth spurt like Potbelly or Chipotle, but it could be on the way. Consumers are increasingly busy and want a quick, flavor-filled meal option between work and the craziness of their day.

“Poké was this quick grab-and-go item so it makes sense to ‘mainland it a bit’ if you will and elevate it to where you’re adding more inspired flavors and sauces,” said Zach Friedlander, who opened Aloha Poké in Chicago’s French Market in early 2016. “People working 9-to-5 need that lunchtime fuel. Many fast-casual places are in-and-out in 20 to 30 minutes depending on lines. So keep it under 90 seconds a customer [in line] and be efficient.”

In addition to speed, people are also looking to eat healthier and poké can deliver on that.

“Poké fulfills that gap of a healthy alternative to eating fast,” said chef Rodelio Aglibot, who is opening FireFin Poké Shop in Chicago. “We’re not frying, there’s minimal oil, we’re not processing anything. People want to eat healthy, but also feel they experienced something.”

While Wong pointed out that most of the poké you see on the mainland might not read “traditional,” the dish needs to deliver on various levels for it to grow and catch on across America. As it has gained popularity, poké has become a more versatile dish with people using different types of seafood like salmon, octopus and shrimp; meat like chicken and beef; tofu and even fruit like mango.

Pokéworks currently has locations in New York and Mountain View, Calif., and is planning additional spots in southern and northern California and Seattle. It offers poké in bowls, salads and in wraps as a burrito. Customers choose their base then add a protein like ahi tuna, salmon, seared albacore, organic tofu or sous vide shrimp, scallops or chicken. Different mix-ins like blanched kale, diced mango and edamame along with flavors like sriracha aioli, spicy ginger or umami shoyu round things out before different toppings and crunchy items finish it off.

“You can diversify with many flavors,” said Kevin Hsu, Pokéworks’ managing partner. “We wanted to provide a concept that’s more conveyed toward the mainland audience. We saw that diners like to have freedom and control as they’re building the food they like to eat, but also keeping it along a single concept, like Chipotle.”

One thing to consider is the freshness of the fish. Since we’re talking raw fish in many cases, it has to be of the highest quality. And that could also affect your price. The laws of supply and demand come into play here and you also don’t want to use an inferior product just to meet your bottom line or keep things in line with your brand concept.

“Almost every concept I’ve looked at the fish is all priced the same,” Wong said. “I’m sorry, but ahi, albacore, salmon and octopus can’t all be $8.95 for a small size and $12.95 for large. It’s ludicrous [to think] there’s an endless supply of the three or four varieties that are your main players. Our poké will be priced at market price per pound. My question to the customer is, ‘Why do you want to pay as little money as possible to put raw fish into your body? Do you know where that seafood came from?’”

04 03 poke 2No matter if you serve poké traditionally as diced tuna with soy and sesame in a bowl or wrap octopus or chicken in a burrito with a spicy mayo, the bottom line is consumers are hungry for even more fast, healthy alternatives.

“Poké is delicious,” Wong added. “Millions of Hawaiians generations deep can’t be wrong.”

And plenty of restaurants popping up are betting on that.

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