This Underrated Fast-Casual Chain Is Aggressively Expanding
When you think of healthy, fast-casual restaurants, it's likely that Panera Bread or maybe even Chipotle are among the first to come to mind. Those living in major cities may also think of chains that primarily serve salads, such as Sweetgreen or Just Salad. But does Pokéworks pop into your head, too?
Founded by brothers Mike Wu and Peter Yang—as well as seven other cofounders back in 2015—Pokéworks was created with the intent of serving its own take on the traditional Hawaiian dish, poke, which usually includes some combination of sushi-grade raw fish, rice, and marinade.
As of now, Pokéworks is the largest poke chain in the United States and while poke is still a new food category in the fast-casual dining space, it has continued to grow in popularity. Currently, locations of the chain can be found in 24 states as well as in Washington, D.C., but as the demand for poke continues to grow across the nation, it presents the opportunity to tap into new marketplaces.
In a recent podcast interview, Joanna Fantozzi, senior editor at Nation's Restaurant News, spoke with the newly appointed CEO of Pokéworks, Steve Heeley, about the chain's expansion plans.
"We've done a good amount of consumer research over the last few months and I think what was surprising in a good way is the continued growth and adoption of poke as a category. There are a lot of perceptions that poke was a trend and a little bit of flash in the pan, and what we're learning is poke is here to stay and now is a clear category in fast-casual [dining]," said Heeley.
In the interview, Heeley describes Pokéworks' expansion thus far as a success story. Since the chain launched nearly six years ago, the chain went from zero to 60 restaurants across the country, adding that Gen Z customers continue to show the most interest in the cuisine. And while you can find a poke restaurant in many U.S. cities now, the brand remains robust due to its loyal customers.
"What we bring to the table is really that trusted, high-quality, fresh product delivered in a great environment with all of the expectations that guests have around leaning-fast-casual concepts—a great digital experience, a great in-store experience. So, that's what's exciting is, we're just sort of starting the growth curve of this big opportunity out there for us to seize," he said. "We really want to focus on growing through franchising."
In addition to staying ahead of the trends in convenience technology (think, online ordering), Heeley adds that several menu innovations are currently in the works as well. For example, plant-based protein options are hot in the chain's test kitchen right now.
If you don't already have Pokéworks in your town, it's possible you'll be seeing one pop up in the next few years.
For more, be sure to check out America's Largest Drive-In Restaurant Just Added an Epic New Cheeseburger to Its Menu.