The hottest cold food trend and current phenomenon in the fast casual industry is poke. Pronounced ‘po-kay,’ it means “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian. The raw fish dish originated in the Hawaiian culture as a snack or appetizer made from leftover fish has quickly turned into an all on entrée in the US.
Spanning from the west coast to the east coast, this fishy food has been swimming its way into major metropolitan cities ready to embrace the sushi bowl like item. From concepts like Sweetfin and Wisefish Poke centered solely on poke to restaurants adding this unique item to their menu, it’s appealing to the millennial mindset looking for fast, healthy food options.
Catering to the customizable build-your-own craze originated by brands like Chipotle, these concepts offer a simplified menu often with few proteins like tuna, salmon, shrimp and tofu (for the vegetarians). As more poke concepts enter the market though the innovative additions have also trickled in with iterations like clam and lobster poke versions to set themselves apart.
If you haven’t tried the trend, at this point it might at least be on your radar. According to Foursquare, the number of Hawaiian restaurants has nearly doubled in the last two years, and Google searches for “poke bowl” are 355 percent more popular compared to last year. Without the need for industrial kitchen equipment like fryers, ovens and grills, it’s also an affordable concept, even making it ideal for major retailers like Whole Foods to embrace.
Mobile to Mortar
We all know that Columbus is one of the best test markets for big restaurant brands, but we’re also home to some of the best independent entrepreneurs making big waves in the fast casual industry—Fusian, Piada, and Hot Chicken Takeover—just to name a few. That said it should come as no surprise the poke trend in marinating here in the heart of the Midwest.
With inspiration from a meal on family vacation in Hawaii while he was 10, founder Nile Woodson started, Hai Poké, an authentic Hawaiian street food concept, with partner Mico Cordero after college graduation in 2015. The duo borrowed $1,000 from their moms and purchased a rice cooker to start the business.
Taking advice from local Columbus pizza entrepreneur Mikey Sorboro of Mikey’s Late Night Slice, they started as a pop-up featured a couple days a week at a local hotspot Oddfellows Liquor Bar. After strong interest from the community they ventured to other locations in a temporary state, and eventually migrated to a five day a week lunch schedule at a the local Pure Pressed Juicery. A food truck soon followed with a regular scheduled presence at some of the local brewery hotspots, in addition to bars, festivals, and events.
After local accolades, Hai Poké was ready to make a permanent move, something that was long envisioned from the very beginning. Woodson and Cordero ran a successful IndieGoGo campaign with incentives ranging from a single Poke Bowl to a Poke Bowl Party to raise a little over $10,000 to help them establish a first brick-and-mortar location. The new, permanent location in the Short North Arts District opened in September of this year in between many of places they popped up in around the local community.
“It feels like we’ve been traveling and living an Airbnb-type lifestyle, so it’s really nice to finally be home and have our feet firmly planted,” Cordero said.