“They’re everywhere!” exclaimed a local Poke shop owner in nearby Fullerton, CA. He then seemed to channel Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars… “and they’re coming in too fast!”
You don’t need to look too hard or too far… Poke restaurants and Poke menu offerings are poking up everywhere (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). That Frozen Yogurt Shop at the corner is likely a Poke Shop now.
Unless you have been hiding out in the desert since 2015, you have to of noticed the “Poke Craze.”
Just search #poke on Twitter… you’ll scroll for hours with customers and restauranteurs posting their pictures of fabulous bowls of bright fish cubes. On Google, the same search will come back with 25,300,000 results (“Poke Fullerton” came back with 258,000 results alone). Hundreds of articles about this fascination with Poke have been written from industry rags like Eater and Bon Appetit to more mainstream media like the Washington Post, Forbes and even People Magazine. It seems like everyone is doing the Poke dance and there is no end in sight.
Back in September of 2016, Eater Magazine looked deeper into the meteoric rise of places serving Poke… “The number of Hawaiian restaurants on Foursquare, which includes those that serve poke, has nearly doubled in the last two years, from 342 venues to 700 as of August 2016. This August alone, new poke concepts have opened in several cities, including Phoenix, Orange County, Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York City. If the growth rate continues, by 2020 there could be more than 1,000 Hawaiian restaurants in the country.”
2020? Think again. In a recent survey of our own, we talked to several franchisees of Poke places and at last count, just these few we spoke to have stated they have over 400 new Poke franchises signed and opening. There are over 1,000 new Poke places open NOW! (just Google “how to start a Poke Bowl business” and you will get 3,860,000 results)
1,000 units do not even come close to the real number. Traditional seafood houses, fast-casual seafood operations, and even mainstream restaurants are adding Poke to their menu. The count is in the thousands.
This issue of The Deep Dive Report intends to Dive Deep into Poke… and help you come out victorious; winning over customers that crave your little bowls of heaven and bring back lots of friends to experience your magical Hawaiian cuisine.
What is Going On?
With the popularity of Poke, there is simply more Poke demand than there is good Poke supply. Poke has fast become the chicken wing of the seafood industry. Poke is more desired than any other cut of Tuna.
Restaurant operators are fighting a 3 Front War… 1) The supply war 2) The quality war 3) The competition opening everywhere, driving prices down.
Poke gained local popularity in Hawaii as The Fisherman’s Snack. They would cut small pieces of offcuts from their catch and snack on them during the day on the boat. In the 70’s, restaurants in Hawaii started to offer Poke to the tourists and it quickly became a very popular “destination dish.”
Skipjack Tuna and Octopus were the original offerings… mainly because Skipjack was too small to cut into entree portions, but over the years, larger Tuna and additional species have found themselves in the offering.
Ahi Poke was traditionally cut from the offcuts of Saku, aka Primes… the most prized cut of tuna. Saku has traditionally been in high demand at fine sushi restaurants so Poke was sufficient for Hawaiian demand. As Poke has become more and more popular on the mainland, this type of Poke became very scarce in relation to the high demand. Traditional Poke, the best cuts still remain mostly in Hawaii.
Higher demand has resulted in an ocean of suppliers cutting all the Ahi Tuna they can into these little cubes. The problem is, there is an art to cutting GOOD POKE… simply cutting a bunch of full Ahi Lons into cubes results in a lot of less than desireable Poke that is ladened with too much sinew (aka Sugi). Sinew is more prominent at the head and the tail… the more active parts of the muscles.
Sinew or Sugi is connective tissue or tendon-like and hard to chew making the eating experience less than ideal. An exhaustive search on Yelp reveals many complaints and comments about chewy Ahi Poke that accompany 1 and 2 Star reviews… Ouch!
Besides Ahi Tuna, new species are popping up with Albacore and Salmon as the most popular additions… cooked octopus is still very common. Albacore is a very good line extension as is Salmon, but Salmon Poke quality and eating experience vary widely.
What Does This Mean to YOU?
More competitors drive up demand which drives up the price, but with greater competition, there is downward pressure on prices which find owners looking for better deals on Poke to protect their margins.
Finding a good source of supply and cuts that can provide your customers with a magical and memorable Poke adventure and have them share their experience with their friends and the social sites is the whole ball game.
Where to find the winning combination of consistent, premium cuts and a competitive price is the real trick (spoiler alert, you can start to solidify your winning combination by sending an email to email@example.com )
What Can YOU Do?
As with nearly everything in this business, You Have Options!
You have several options to create a fabulous Poke experience. Your signature dish is certainly going to include your signature sauce, but as fish guys, we are leaving the sauce creation and recipes to you.
Step one is to look at who is doing Poke right, serving dishes that have customers craving and raving about them and mirror their success, but where do you start?
You know the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?
Well, when dealing with Poke, do as the Hawaiians do! They have a reputation as discriminating buyers and meticulous creators of the most coveted Poke in the world.
Before we Dive into specific cuts, options and species, there is one hard and fast rule with Poke that makes a HUGE difference… Size Matters!
Choose the size cube/piece you want and stick with it – This is a very big deal for a couple reasons…
1) The Marinade you are using will penetrate the flesh differently with larger and smaller pieces. If your sizes are too varied, the eating experience will be hit and miss. The worst thing a customer can say is, “it’s not as good as it used to be.” Lack of size consistency will cause in flavor inconsistency that will result in low customer confidence… not good.
2) If the pieces vary in size, then the pieces per serving will also vary. The customer buys with their eyes. When they see a difference in size or portion from visit to visit, there is a high probability that they will think they are getting slighted one way or the other.
- The other issue with this is your server on the line. If you started with 1/2″-3/4″ pieces and then moved to 3/4″-1″ pieces, and you are using a Poke Scooper (see image) there will be visibly fewer pieces per the serving. Your server will likely be compelled to add “a couple more pieces”… especially if they are building the bowl in front of the customer like at all Fast Casual Poke places. This will impact your food cost and profitability in a way that is nearly invisible to you but can hurt badly over time.
While size matters, having a perfect cube is not as important as having a good quality Poke with little to no sinew/sugi. The traditional Poke was a 3/4″ cube, but sizes have varied for portioning purposes.
Poke commonly comes in 3 cuts…
- Regular – This is as close to a perfect cube as you can get.
- Irregular – These are close, but not quite… hence the name irregular (Irregular are more common with hand cut Poke). These can be a little cheaper than Regular, but not much.
- Crazy Cuts – These bare very little if any resemblance to Poke Cubes. – These are usually strips that can be further cut, but they are highly inconsistent and usually much cheaper in price with a higher instance of sinew.
Ahi Tuna is the big daddy of the Poke offering. There are a few ways to go about serving the best available product, like the Hawaiians…
- Look for Ahi Tuna that is Hand Line Caught – There is a rule that has been stated when it comes to fishing… “the lower the tech the catch method, the higher the quality the fish.” Using fish that was caught and boarded alive will result in a better performing fish on the dish. Handline is about as low-tech as it gets.
- Look for Ahi Poke that is Hand Cut from Fresh Tuna Prior to Freezing – This will give you a higher probability of high-quality tuna with the lowest probability of sinew. When the cutters are cutting from fresh tuna, they can see the sinew so it is much easier to work around the tail and the nape cuts. Commonly, the nape and tail cuts will be sent through a centrifuge to remove the sinew and then into a grinder for ground tuna. Ground or finely chopped tuna is used for Spicy Tuna but is also used for burgers or other eclectic selections like Blackened Seared Ahi Tuna Tacos… Yum!
- Cut your own Poke from Center Cut Loins – This has vastly become the more popular way to get good quality Poke… on the mainland and in Hawaii. It is important to start with Center Cut Loins that trim the tail and nape down to limit the sinew in the loin. You can trim a whole loin yourself by cutting off the nape and the tail sections, but that can and most like WILL create a consistency issue in the back of the house… and leave you with a lot of Tuna with a high volume of sinew.
*** Something that will also create a better experience for your guests… especially the Millenials, is to make sure your fish is caught responsibly. Require your Ahi Tuna supplier to show you proof that your Ahi is Sea Mammal Safe (Sea Mammal / Sea Turtle Safe), and then post it out front for all to see.
Additional offerings have been very popular, but not always easy to find in a consistent manner. Here are a couple of the more common Poke offerings…
Albacore – This is an obvious and easy choice to add but it is important to follow the same rules on the size of the cube. The loins are fairly easy to cut and do not have the same high sinew challenge. Sashimi Grade Albacore is going to produce the best flavor and performance by far. There are Sashimi Grade sources from both the North and South Pacific… the South Pacific Albacore is a bit larger and less expensive.
Salmon – Salmon has become very popular but can become problematic if you are driving to the bottom on price. There is a real art to finding good Salmon Poke that won’t break the bank, but going the cheap way will hurt you in the form of horrible reviews accompanied with pictures of pale mush.
Important: Farm-raised Atlantic Salmon has proven to produce the best and most consistent flavor of Salmon Poke with a good firm bite. We have seen some operators use WIld Salmon, but the results vary widely… too widely.
Here are some options for good quality Salmon Poke…
- Hand Cut Deep Skinned Poke – The preferred cut will be more of an irregular cut, but has nice color. The most cost-effective version is out of China, but it is far from cheap. There is commonly not a lot of flavor with the cut out of China, but this can be a good thing as it will take on the flavors of your sauces and spices while maintaining a good, firm bite.
- Not all hand cut is created equal. Many are Crazy Cuts, not very pretty, very soft and a bit grainy.
- Premium Atlantic Salmon Poke Saw Cut from Block Frozen Salmon – This has been the most cost-effective way we have seen to serve a great Salmon Poke without too high a cost. The best we have seen is out of Norway, but there are good cuts from Chile as well. These cuts are very consistent size wise and less expensive than the better hand cut.
- Cutting Your Own – We have seen operators take advantage of slower moving sizes of frozen Atlantic Salmon Portions and fillets and cut their own in the back of the house. This can be a great option but BEWARE…
- Sourcing older product will result in heavier tasting Salmon and will turn mushy faster.
- Sourcing Salmon Trim or Tails will cause inconsistencies in performance (mushy, fat line, color) and flavor… and sourcing trim is NOT Scalable. This is a hit and miss proposition, especially for a growing concept.
Whether is it Ahi, Albacore, Salmon or the multitude of other species, the way to with the Poke War, once and for all is simple… start with high-quality raw material and then stick with what works. Your customers will thank you… and bring friends.
While the Poke Craze continues to heat up, so will your experiences with new species, cuts, and offerings.
If this Deep Dive Report has taught you anything, I hope you walk away with the understanding that you have options and that going to the cheap is an option that will hurt you sooner than later.
If you would like to discuss any of these options or even sample some of the cuts shared above, please contact me directly, or shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are eager to serve you.
We are eager to serve you.
To Your Abundant Health,
President, International Pacific Seafoods
o: (866) 360-FISH (3474)
c: (714) 936-5302