“I’m not just looking to diversify. I’m looking to simplify.”
When Chris Birkinshaw heard those words at a multi-unit franchise conference in Las Vegas this August, the notion crystallized for the Aloha Poke CEO. The franchisees in attendance weren’t just looking for concepts to add on—they were thinking through complexity in a new light.
And it’s a trend surfacing sector-wide as restaurants emerge from COVID. Aloha Poke is seeing it firsthand, Birkinshaw says. The company is fielding interest from potential operators, all of whom hope a poke concept will simplify their portfolios.
Mainly, a rush toward lower operational costs, leaner operations, shorter food production lines, and less of a reliance on a large staff.
Why this is happening isn’t complex. The restaurant industry is battling a host of issues right now: the labor shortage and supply chain dilemmas at the forefront.
Reports of Starbucks running out of key menu items circulated this summer, with the brand putting at least 25 items on “temporary hold.” Meanwhile, McDonald’s abandoned its all-day breakfast and salad menu items early on.
When menu additions are made, like during the so-labeled “chicken sandwich wars,” they often involve new equipment purchases and an additional workstation. Wage pressures, long an issue before COVID, are now intensified. There simply aren’t enough employees seeking work in foodservice industry anymore.
All of these factors stir a perfect storm for simple concepts to thrive, Birkinshaw says. There are many positives for a concept with a relatively no-cook kitchen, focused menu, and small labor needs.
Aloha Poke’s new franchisees frequently cite the brand’s simplicity as a top draw. Choosing a concept with highly desirable food for consumers without the fryer and grill is an asset, Birkinshaw adds.
It’s easier to attract and retain talent because there’s no cooking, a cleaner work environment, and that appeals to restaurant workers more than ever.
The rush toward simple concepts is not exactly new, but the pandemic exacerbated it. During the 20 years Birkinshaw has been in the business, he’s witnessed the emergence of fast casual as restaurants grew more modern builds with streamlined menus and stronger customer engagement. The original fast-food quick-serves improved in light of this, and categories started to merge. Now, brands with hyper-focused menus are executing well, with less worries over a vast array of ingredients, as is the case with Aloha Poke.
Poke bowls are customizable, portable, and healthy, three things more and more consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z, are looking for. But Aloha Poke stands out as a simple concept because poke bowls, first and foremost, do not rely on excessive “cooking.” Birkinshaw says he continues to hear the franchisee circle note they’re tired of cooking.
“To have a restaurant concept like ours, where very little actual cooking is involved for something that is a complete meal and not a snack, is, I think, truly unique,” he says.
Atlanta-based franchisee Randy Elias is an Aloha Poke franchisee leaning into the power of a simple brand. He’s been a Moe’s franchisee and owner/operator since 2004 and operated a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt franchise in the 2010s. But over the past six to eight months, Elias had his eyes on Aloha Poke.
A primary driver for Elias in choosing Aloha Poke was the current environment’s labor issues.
Elias will open his Aloha Poke store in Atlanta in 2022. He’s optimistic the simplicity of the concept and product will bring a better bottom line since Aloha Poke boasts reduced startup, equipment, and buildout expenses combined with a lessened dependence on a larger staff to operate stores. Altogether, it makes for a compelling deal. Staff can prep food at greater rates than their quick-service counterparts, and consumers have a streamlined process of paying for food with a pay first option.
“I like their pay-first option, as opposed to pay last,” Elias says. “From somebody who's in this business, that seems like it will simplify the process and move the customer through that much faster.”
It also keeps staff from getting tired as they run back and forth to ring customers up if the store is understaffed.
“I think human energy is finite, and folks get tired when you're doing that,” Birkinshaw says. “So I think fewer customer touch points, requiring fewer workstations, in order to provide an outstanding result and experience for the customer, really is a blessing right now.”
Because there’s not a service line as consumers watch their food being made, which is a traditional model of other concepts, Aloha Poke also requires fewer staff members. At Moe’s, five to six employees may be needed at a time; at Aloha Poke, that number cuts down to two or three. The number may not sound like much, but it’s a huge factor in labor costs, especially with salaries rising.
Elias also believes Aloha Poke is well situated because of its emphasis on healthy eating, a greater trend in post-COVID times.
“The whole concept leads itself into moving into this quicker and less staff reliant industry,” he says.
Retention is something the brand has tried to nurture since day one. Running a simple operation enabled it to offer high starting wages since coming to life in Chicago. Not to mention, workers who are fed up with the grill and fryer are attracted to Aloha.
“From experience, it's less cooking, less staff to operate, less equipment to maintain, less barriers to entry,” Elias says. “It's an easier footprint to maintain fewer square footage. It seems like a very simple process to be able to open and serve, and that's really what I'm interested in.”
As the labor shortage rages on, Birkinshaw is blunt about what he believes will transpire: employers will need to pay more. In Chicago, the average Aloha Poke wage approaches $18 an hour, and Birkinshaw says it’s worth every penny because employees stay a long time and are good at their jobs.
“I don't see an end in sight,” Birkinshaw says. “I think that there's obviously a lot of noise around regulatory push toward a $15 minimum wage. I actually think market forces in most places are going to help propel it there faster than any lobbying or political action is.”
Some of the wage increases will inevitably fall on the customer in the form of menu prices, he says. Birkinshaw also anticipates dining rooms will continue to be less of a focal point but never completely go away in quick service. More emphasis will be placed on the quintessential American drive-thru, a concept that helped get so many through the woes of the pandemic. And technology will ramp up, enabling consumers to order ahead in an easier process.
There were too many restaurants in every category, pre-pandemic, Birkinshaw says, and where many failed, new players will fill the void. All the while, it doesn’t look like supply chain problems will taper off anytime soon, meaning simple concepts will continue to have a greater advantage.
“No one's got a crystal ball on this, but a lot of folks are saying ‘oh, supply chain is going to be disrupted through the end of 2021,’” Birkinshaw says. “I'm not going to be blown away if they're disrupted through the end of 2022.”