L.A. Fast Casual Hopes to Ride Hawaiian Dish to Success

    Industry News | January 18, 2016

    A Los Angeles–based concept is hoping to spin its innovative take on a regional seafood dish into national fast-casual success.

    Sweetfin Poké, which dishes customizable seafood bowls in the manner of the popular Hawaiian dish poké, announced last week that it had closed on a round of funding for growth. The fast casual, whose original location opened in Santa Monica, California, last April, plans to open five new units this year in the Los Angeles area, and executives hope for national growth beyond that.

    Cofounder Seth Cohen says the concept was inspired by a trip to Hawaii, where he fell in love with poké. He and business partners Alan Nathan and Brett Nestadt had been hoping to open a scalable fast-casual concept since their days at the University of Southern California, and believed the poké concept might have legs.

    “In L.A., the sushi bar is so ubiquitous; there seem to be multiple sushi bars on every block in the city,” Cohen says, adding that poké is essentially a seafood or sushi salad. “It’s a type of food people love to eat—it’s healthy, it’s high in protein, it’s flavorful, and it lends itself to the familiar Asian flavors people love to eat.”

    The team spent more than a year on research and development because they wanted to ensure the concept would be scalable, even while using local produce and sustainable seafood. They enlisted Chef Dakota Weiss, a popular Los Angeles chef and former “Top Chef” contestant, to design the Sweetfin Poké menu, which includes signature bowls and house-made sauces. Signature bowls include the Spicy Tuna with creamy togarashi, hijiki seaweed, and avocado; a Kale Snapper with Napa cabbage and red onions; and a Mango Ginger Albacore with macadamia nuts.

    Guests can choose a signature bowl or build their own bowls. In customizing their bowls, customers choose from three bases—bamboo rice, kelp noodle and cucumber slaw, and a citrus kale salad—and can then top it with yellowfin tuna, salmon, snapper, or albacore. There are then a range of toppings and sauces that can be added.

    “Even though it seems like a niche product, it’s customizable in such a way that you can create so many different flavor experiences with the sauces and different toppings and different bases and even the different types of proteins,” Cohen says.

    While the team at Sweetfin Poké does not have projections for how many locations they hope to open, Cohen says there is demand for its product all over the country. For now, though, they plan to saturate the Los Angeles market before expanding into new cities.

    By Sam Oches