Take Yang, his brother Mike Wu
(the CEO), and their seven co-founders.
Just weeks after the opening of the first
Pokéworks store in New York City in
late 2015, lines were pouring out the
door. In January. They now have
$12 million in annual revenue from
19 locations, of which seven are franchised. The company plans to open
another 20 to 25 franchised outlets in
the United States this year.
Pokéworks is far from alone: More
than 700 restaurants nationwide
tracked by Foursquare and Eater.com
served poke in 2016, a 100 percent
increase from 2014. ZeroCater, a corporate catering company, says that in 2017
it saw a 78 percent annual increase
in poke deliveries for its customers in
New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles,
Chicago, Austin, and Washington, D.C.
Poke (pronounced POH-kay) seems
tailor-made for our moment in time.
The fish, combined with a grain or salad
base and mostly vegetable toppings, is
fresh and healthy, playing to current
wellness trends. It’s infinitely customiz-
able, so it can be engineered to suit
almost any diet: high-protein paleo,
gluten-free, or even—if you swap out
the fish for tofu—vegan. Colorfully
photogenic, poke bowls are Instagram
catnip, and easy for o;ce workers to
eat in front of their computers.
Most important for entrepreneurs,
a poke restaurant is fantastically cheap
to open. You don’t need a stove—or a
six-figure ventilation system or a landlord willing to host such a thing. Starting your own poke business requires
little more than a refrigerator for the
fish, a rice cooker for the grains, and a
few prep tables.
“You can open a poke restaurant in
a closet,” says Michael Parlapiano, the
creative director at the Culinary Edge,
a restaurant consultancy based in
San Francisco. “There’s a low barrier
Which has led to a glut. In Los
Angeles, where The Hollywood Reporter
discovered a 10-fold increase in poke
establishments between 2015 and 2017, a
recently opened Sweetfin on West Third
Street is two blocks away from Main-
land Poke Shop, which the Los Angeles
Times called “the best poke restaurant
if you want to see and be seen.” In New
York, at least three poke joints are with-
in a 15-minute walk of the Inc. o;ces.
But it’s not just a coastal-elite thing:
Pokéworks also has outposts in Houston
and El Paso.
A shakeout seems inevitable. But so
far, two market leaders are Pokéworks
and Sweetfin, a startup that’s taken a
very di;erent route to poke success.
While Pokéworks is using franchising
to grow nationally at a rapid pace,
Sweetfin is flush with investor money
and tightly controlled by its founders.
It stayed in its home region of greater
Los Angeles for almost three years
before opening in nearby San Diego,
which it did in February.
ne day back in 2015, Peter
Yang invited his brother and two friends over to his garage to test out
a business idea under discussion—one involving stainless steel prep
tables, innovative sriracha sauces, and lots of raw fish.
“We all felt it was going to be as popular as roll sushi,” recalls
Yang, who co-owns Pokéworks, one of the fastest-growing poke
chains in the country. What he didn’t foresee? “The speed of it.”
Poke, if you’re not a regular at Pokéworks (or rivals Sweetfin
or Poke Me or the PokéSpot or Poke Green or Mainland Poke
Shop), once referred to a traditional Hawaiian dish involving
sushi-grade raw fish, rice, and some sort of marinade. These days,
it’s a catchall term for the reigning fast-casual food craze, one
that’s spreading from Southern California across the country.