What's Behind the Wild Rise of Poké in Los Angeles

Poke Craze Sweetfin - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sweetfin

The raw fish bowls are saturating the city — and sweeping the country — like the second coming of cold-pressed juice.

When word spread in January that Poke Poke, the Venice boardwalk storefront that in 2010 launched L.A.'s love affair with poke, had closed, many wondered if the city's obsession with the raw fish bowls was abating. But what seemed to be the beginning of the end for poke looks more like the end of the beginning.

In short order, the brazenly named Original Poke was pumping out bowls in the same space, opened by the landlord who had unceremoniously evicted its longtime occupant. "I think he had his eyes on doing that for a long time," says Jason McVearry, who founded Poke Poke with his wife, Trish Fortuna. "He saw our lines and did the numbers." (Original Poke owner Ron Kramer did not respond to requests for comment.) Within days, McVearry and Fortuna reopened Poke Poke two blocks down the boardwalk, even as they were busy putting the finishing touches on their second outpost in Austin, Texas.

These days, it's virtually impossible to go a mile in L.A. without passing a poke eatery: Sweetfin Poke, Ahi Poke, All About Poke, Poke 2 Go, The Poke Shack, Poke Me, Spinfish Poke, Okipoki, Pokinometry and, of course, Wiki Poki. In mid-2015, Los Angeles had about a dozen dedicated poke joints; two years later, there are more than 200 poke-centric eateries in L.A. County. "It's already becoming a staple in Los Angeles, like it is in Hawaii," says Sweetfin's chef Dakota Weiss, who competed on Top Chef. McVearry agrees: "The market is fairly saturated in L.A. at this point, but it definitely has the potential to go national."

In fact, poke madness looks like the second coming of cold-pressed juice, in full swing in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago and Boston. Sweetfin, which opened in Santa Monica in April 2015, recruited David Swinghammer, the former CEO at Shake Shack, as a strategic adviser, with an eye toward turning its fast-casual concept into a nationwide empire. Local standard Mainland Poke Shop is about to open its fifth L.A. location and obviously is scaling the business, and Poke Bar is reportedly doing the same. Pokeworks is already bicoastal, with locations in nine states and Canada coming soon. Its first franchise in New York attracted two-hour waits when it opened in 2016 and is competing with Wisefish Poke, The Poke Spot and other indigenous purveyors.

These are heady times for what's essentially a sashimi salad (or chirashi if one prefers fish over rice) by way of Hawaii (where the term "poke" means "sliced crosswise or cubed"). "The surprising thing isn't that poke has become so popular in the continental U.S., it's that it took this long," says Martha Cheng, author of The Poke Cookbook. "People already love sushi, sashimi, crudo and ceviche; poke is a natural extension of those dishes."

As a business proposition, purveyors are able to build on that comfort level. "We wanted to find a way to make sushi more accessible," says Seth Cohen, co-founder of Sweetfin (which is targeting neighborhoods where fitness brands like SoulCycle and Equinox have thrived). "Poke is portable, customizable and definitely much cheaper to create for the average consumer." It's profitable, too. Though some chains — like Mainland, which says it only uses sushi-grade fish —have staked out a premium positioning, poke can be made with less costly fish, doesn't require a skilled sushi chef to prepare and can be assembled quickly. And venture capitalists are bullish that raw fish bowls have mass appeal — after all, poke lets customers combine their kale salad and their lean, pescatarian protein.

Predictably, concerns about quality control and a backlash among chefs against poor-grade preparations have risen along with poke's popularity. McVearry, a surfer whose love of poke blossomed while living in Hawaii, wishes big business would keep its hands off his bowls. "I read one guy saying, 'We want to compete with Chipotle.' And I get it," he says. "But I don't know how to put it: … 'Maybe chill with that.' "

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.