As demand for customizable, better-for-you options heats up, fast-casual poke brands stand poised to take center stage with an expected compounded annual growth rate of 8.2 percent from 2023 to 2033, according to Marketstatsville.

Poke is a traditional Hawaiian cuisine that features a base of diced raw fish, typically tuna. Historically, toppings include green onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, and chopped scallions atop a bed of rice or greens, but brands are now reinventing the popular dish.

It did not take long for this menu item to spread quickly across both coasts in the mid-2010s, with brands such as Just Poke, Pokeworks, and Island Fin Poke riding the wave of the poke craze.

Just Poke got its footing in the Seattle market in 2016 when best friends turned co-founders Danny Brawer and Norman Wu left the corporate world to pursue what Wu calls “the gold rush of poke.”

According to Wu, there have been two shifts in the segment: The initial boom of poke came from a desire to hop on a fast-growing food trend, and the second came from post-pandemic demographic changes.

“For us, we’ve seen a big shift to the suburban market and focusing on areas that might not be traditional locations [for poke],” Wu says. “Of our 35 locations, 33 are in the greater Seattle area, but a lot of them are in different suburban pockets. And we have seen those stores do well as more people are at home working.”

While there is beauty in the simplicity of poke and its ability to fit most dietary restrictions, Wu is leaning toward a chef-driven menu, a notch or two above the typical poke restaurant in terms of mix-ins and offerings. With the help of a new culinary director who’s worked for two James Beard-nominated restaurants, he hopes to diversify Just Poke’s menu as part of a strategic growth strategy.

“At first, something [simple] was more relatable and easier to understand for people who were new to poke,” Wu says. “We’re going to launch a revamped menu starting this year, and now that people are familiar with the food, they’re going to be excited to see what’s next.”

As the chain continues to grow upwards of 35 locations, Wu has his eyes set on moving outside of the Pacific Northwest. Just Poke started offering franchising in 2020 and hired a consultant who will aid in the process of finding the right strategic partners and exploring new markets.

For Island Fin Poke, menu innovation involves avoiding fads and aiming for operational efficiency—if a new addition slows down the service model, it takes away from the ease of execution the brand prides itself on.

“We do menu development all the time, testing new sauces and routines, but we really haven’t pivoted,” says CEO and president Mark Setterington. “We’re going to stay true to who we are … Our operation is seamless, and we don’t want to add complexity.”

The Florida-based franchise is testing a computerized drink machine to expand its menu without to streamline throughput. With the addition of boba, the Orlando location has seen beverage attachments jump from 26 to 46 percent since its installment on July 10.

Made-from-scratch sauces and over 25 fresh topping options help Island Fin Poke stand out in a bustling segment, but the secret sauce is hospitality, the CEO says. Team members run food to tables, hand out free cups of water and soft serve ice cream samples, and bus tables.

“What sets us apart from everybody in the category is our team members and level of service,” Setterington says. “Some days it feels like hospitality is a lost art, and it makes me sad because that’s all I’ve ever done.”

Setterington describes the future of Island Fin Poke as opportunistic. As the franchise program continues to grow, unique opportunities are popping up in the most unlikely of places: grocery stores, food trucks, and office building food courts.

“We don’t just take anybody, but there’s not a space that scares us,” Setterington adds. “Our nimbleness, ease of execution, and small footprint allows us to go into places where restaurants with more complexity can’t go.”

A veteran in the segment, Pokeworks came onto the scene in 2015 and quickly became a trailblazer in the segment as poke grew on menus by 135 percent from 2016 to the end of 2020, according to Datassential.

“Poke Your Way” options and rotating LTOs keep customers coming back for more, says Regina Cheung, CEO and CFO at Pokeworks.

“The Luxe Lobster Bowl has been one of our most successful LTOs to date,” Cheung says. “The LTOs keep our guests engaged … and it helps us stand out to be an innovator [in the space].”

Pokeworks embraces experimentation, from its viral poke burritos to its Garlic Spam Musubi. The concept is always trying something new to bring the “aloha spirit” to guests with new ingredients or sides that add to the overall experience, says the Pokeworks executive.

“Standing behind the chef-forward nature of our brand means utilizing all our existing ingredients to make a curated palette for foodies,” Cheung says. “We are also innovating outside of the poke entree, with smoothies, refreshers, and boba.”

With 72 units and counting, Cheung says the growth journey has felt organic. The first Pokeworks location in Toronto, Canada, opened this year, and several other locations will follow.

Eat Up Canada signed a master franchise agreement with Pokeworks to develop 50 units over the next 10 years, which will become a big growth vehicle for the brand moving into the future.

“We’re a food-forward, franchisee-first culture,” Cheung adds. “I’m looking forward to driving our core values across the organization as we continue to grow and expand … and give others a tiny glimpse of Hawaii on the mainland.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Story, Island Fin Poké, Pokeworks