In a short time, poke (pronounced po-KAY) has gone from a meal mostly found in Hawaii to the next darling of commercial fast-casuals. Mentions of poke bowls and poke in August jumped 160% from the prior year, according to data from Foursquare and Swarm.
Dozens of poke-focused concepts have launched in the last year or so across the continental U.S., starting in California and expanding to other markets like New York City and Chicago. While each concept offers its own take on the dish, poke usually consists of cubed ahi tuna in a bowl over rice or greens with sauces and toppings.
These fast-casual poke concepts have a few things in common, some of which will sound familiar to noncommercial ops: They feature a build-your-own, assembly line-style format, and many promote high-quality, sustainably sourced fish. Units tend to be small, as kitchens don’t require a lot of equipment because most of the ingredients are raw. Another common factor—long lines, leading poke concepts to quickly expand and new brands to take off. Here’s a look at some notable poke concepts to keep an eye on.
Launched: April 2015
Location: Santa Monica, Calif.
In development: 4 Los Angeles-area units
Sweetfin Poke counts industry vets like former Shake Shack CEO David Swinghammer and Il Fornaio founder Larry Mindel among its advisors and investors. The concept offers “not your grandmother’s poke,” putting a California spin on traditional Hawaiian poke. Signature and build-your-own bowls feature ingredients like a citrus-kale salad base and fresh seaweed, and customers can pair their bowls with house-infused seasonal fruit teas.
Launched: December 2015 in Temple City, Calif.
Locations: 4 in California, 2 in Arizona
In development: 10 locations in California and Arizona
Beyond the occasional seasonal special, Ahipoki Bowl is entirely a build-your-own concept. In addition to traditional tuna and salmon, Ahipoki Bowl offers a larger seafood selection than other poke concepts that includes octopus, scallops and yellowtail. Units are also larger, ranging from about 1,400 to 2,600 square feet.
Launched: January 2016 in New York City
Locations: New York City; Mountain View and Irvine, Calif.
In development: 4 NYC and California restaurants, plus entry into Seattle and Boston
Pokeworks offers two meals of the moment: poke bowls and sushi burritos. Customers create their own poke bowl, Pokiritto (featuring white rice and a seaweed wrap) or salad, or choose from a signature selection of poke bowls. The brand promotes the use of high-quality, sustainably and locally sourced fish, although it also offers chicken and tofu to combat the veto vote from non-seafood eaters.
Aloha Poke Co.
Launched: June 2016 in Chicago
Locations: 3 in Chicago
The first all-poke concept to hit Chicago, Aloha Poke Co. has grown primarily with nontraditional locations. Its flagship site is a counter at the city’s French Market food hall, and it opened another food hall outpost with the launch of Revival Food Hall in August. The concept is now venturing into off-premise growth with the launch of build-your-own Sumo Bowls, 160-ounce poke bowls designed to feed eight to 10 people that are currently offered for pickup at its full-size Lakeview location but will soon be available for delivery.
More to come
Poke concepts aren’t limited to coastal cities and major markets. Here are some more popping up around the nation:
Poke Sushi Bowl launched in August right off University of Virginia’s main campus in Charlottesville.
Tail & Fin, a poke bowl and burrito spot that opened in August in a Las Vegas strip mall, features meals designed by a former Nobu executive chef.
Zen Fish, slated to open in Durham, N.C., this fall, will be the Triangle region’s first restaurant to specialize in poke.
FreshFin Poke, Milwaukee’s first poke-focused concept, is slated to launch in November.
Hai Poke was founded in June 2015 in Columbus, Ohio, where it operates a food truck and hosts “kitchen takeovers” at area eateries on select days. It’s currently fundraising for a brick-and-mortar site.