Wave of poké restaurants washes over Milwaukee

Feature

Poké bowls served at FreshFin Poké.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:21 pm

A new food trend that first hit Milwaukee a couple years ago has some local diners hooked and restaurant owners wanting a piece of the action.

The name of the game is poké (pronounced poh-kay), a Hawaiian seafood dish that has spurred a wave of new fast-casual concepts throughout the country within the past five years.

Irvine, California-based Pokéworks operates 30 locations throughout the U.S.
Credit: Pokéworks

Poké is raw fish – usually tuna or salmon – popularly served bowl-style with other ingredients, including seaweed, avocado, edamame and cucumber, over rice, leafy greens or other grains. The word poké, itself, means to slice or cut into pieces, which is telling of how the fish is prepared.

Because of its origin, poké gained mainland popularity in California and throughout the west coast before the trend was picked up by cities such as New York, Chicago and Denver and, later, by Milwaukee.

Locally, the craze hasn’t died down. The number of local and chain poké concepts that have popped up throughout the Milwaukee area since 2017 is approaching 10. They include Milwaukee-based FreshFin Poké; Chicago-based Aloha Poké Co.; Chicago-based Fusion Poke; Irvine, California-based Pokéworks; and Wauwatosa-based R&R Poké. Another, called Fuji Poke Inc., was proposed last month for Bay View.

“Poké delivers clean, whole-ingredient, healthy food for consumers, and that’s really where food trends overall are going,” said Nate Arkush, co-founder of FreshFin Poké.

The business was first-to-market in the area when it opened its flagship restaurant in January 2017 on Milwaukee’s East Side. It has since grown to operate three additional locations, in the Historic Third Ward, at The Corners of Brookfield shopping center and in Madison, plus a vendor stand at Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee.

FreshFin serves seven signature bowls and a build-your-own option. The Mango Tango and Spicy Tuna, made with salmon and ahi tuna, are among the more traditional poké bowls on the menu, but for diners who haven’t developed a taste for raw fish, there is always the Cilantro Chicken, Kalua Pork or the vegan Zen Bowl.

Those alternative options have helped FreshFin set itself apart from its fast-growing competition, Arkush said.

“The poké consumer who is looking for raw fish is still our bread and butter and our main focus, but we also recognize that there are a lot of other consumers who may not be into the raw fish, but are into the healthy, flavorful, affordable and quick bowls, and we’re trying to balance the two,” he said.

Before launching FreshFin, Arkush had wanted to open a fast-casual, health-focused restaurant. After researching the poké trend and touring several poké restaurants in Los Angeles, he had made up his mind.

“It was love at first bite,” he said.

Arkush said Milwaukee’s consumer market holds great potential for the trend to continue. He believes a large segment of local diners have not even tried poké yet, but once they do, they will be hooked.

In Arkush’s case, a major draw to the dish was its similarity to another trend-setting food he loves: sushi.

“It gives you all the benefits of sushi, but it’s much quicker, much more affordable, customizable and healthy,” he said.

The advantages of patronizing a counter service poké shop rather than a sit-down sushi restaurant could provide an explanation for the craze.

“It’s easier for consumers,” said Ren Zhang, owner of R&R Poké. “You don’t have to sit and wait for your food, and while you will likely pay about $20 for your meal at a sushi restaurant, you’ll only pay $10 at a poké restaurant.”

Zhang and his wife, Rachel Zhao, opened up their restaurant last fall in the Wauwatosa Village.

Poké bowls served at FreshFin Poké.
Credit: FreshFin Poké

Similar to FreshFin, R&R offers a build-your-own bowl on its menu, but when it comes to its selection of signature bowls, traditional poké is the mainstay, with six types of fish to choose from.

Organic tofu and chicken are also available, but overall, tuna is its best-selling protein, Zhang said.

Zhang entered the poké world with a background in sushi, starting out as a sushi chef and later owning a restaurant. Prior to opening R&R, he worked at a poké shop for one year, which was enough time to realize the business model was more efficient than that of his previous work.

The typical poké   concept is operated like a fast-food restaurant – it employs a minimal amount of employees, utilizes basic equipment and doesn’t require a large space – so from an operator’s perspective, it’s much easier to start.

Jongsoo Kim, who owns sushi restaurants Kanpai in the Third Ward and Kanpai 2 on Milwaukee’s East Side, agrees, but says he will not enter the poke market because he is interested in focusing on high-end dining that appeals to high-income diners. Poké appeals heavily to the lunchtime crowd, but not enough to dinnertime diners, which is where the money is, Kim said.

While some poké restaurant owners choose to start from scratch, others prefer to buy in to one of the many poké franchises that have launched throughout the country.

Andy Wick, a Milwaukee native, recently brought Pokéworks to the area, opening the company’s first Wisconsin location in Brookfield. Wick recently moved back to his hometown after three years living in Denver, which is where he was first introduced to poké.

Since its 2015 founding, Pokéworks has grown to operate more than 30 locations throughout the country, with an equal amount projected to open by the end of 2020, according to its website.

The new Brookfield location celebrated its grand opening last month with an event that attracted more than 550 people, Wick said. The restaurant ran out of ahi tuna – using the five cases it had ordered – and served almost 600 bowls throughout the day.

Wick said being a part of a larger company with an established brand has made the opening process more seamless. It also helps ensure the fish being served at the restaurant is sustainably sourced and safe for consumption, he said.

“That was another part of pairing with a franchise that I took very seriously, because as just a single person, trying to source all these different types of fish properly would be very difficult,” Wick said.

Regardless of the restaurant’s footprint, sourcing and food safety is a major concern when dealing with fresh, raw fish that has the potential to spoil—especially when it is being shipped halfway across the country.

FreshFin, which sources its salmon directly from the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, places multiple orders each week to make sure the fish is served no more than 48 hours after it is caught.

During the shipping process, the fish are refrigerated and kept on ice. Thermostats monitor the temperature of the fish, allowing the supplier to maintain a required range during transit.

“If something were to go wrong, they would be able to tell that it wasn’t within the thermostat window that’s acceptable, and they would destroy the product before it even gets to us,” Arkush said.

Once the fish arrives at the restaurant, it is handled and stored carefully so it maintains its freshness and taste until it is sliced and served.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.