Franchise focus: How 1 brand is taking poke mainstream

| by Cherryh Cansler
Franchise focus: How 1 brand is taking poke mainstream

Americans rave about their burgers and pizza, but it seems poke is taking center plate these days. A recent video featuring a burrito from Pokeworks that got 42 million views online is proof that Americans are ready for raw fish salad, said Kevin Hsu, co-founder of the fast casual concept based in California.

"People enjoy culturally diverse foods," Hsu said in an interview with FastCasual. "In addition, poke meets current consumer desires for healthier fast casual options and a greater awareness for well-sourced ingredients."

Pokeworks, which couples high-quality seafood with traditional Hawaiian ingredients, including furikake, hikiki seaweed, mango and macadamia nuts, is expanding this year to NYC, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington DC, and recently opened its first franchise in Boston.

Pokeworks' poke burrito

An idea is born

Immigration is a key component to the Pokeworks story as Hsu and his brother, Kasper, founded the chain with college buddies, Peter Yang and Michael Wu, who all had similar upbringings with parents migrating from China and Taiwan in search of the American dream.

As young adults, the men worked in Chinese, Japanese, and Thai restaurants, where they learned valuable lessons from their parents about flavors, ingredients and industry operations. Complying to their parents' hopes for high-level careers, they went to college for engineering and management, where countless meals with close friends eventually solidified their love for restaurant operations.

"In 2005, Mike and Peter brought a Fortune 500 China brand into the US and expanded into a national footprint of 20+ stores from the east to west coast over the next 10 years," Kevin Hsu said. "Although this existing restaurant chain was very successful, they still had a driving desire to create their own."

Fast-forward to a life-changing trip to Hawaii, when the four college buddies shared an aha moment while eating poke multiple times a day. They began to incorporate household snacks for added flavor and texture, which was how the brand's "Poke Your Way" motto was born.

Going mainstream

While poke isn't yet mainstream, the segment is gaining traction in multiple markets, Hsu said.

"Pokeworks is on a strong growth trajectory with the development of both corporate and franchised locations, which is expected to continue through 2017 and beyond," he said. "Consumers in several markets have already adopted the idea of fresh, natural and healthy dining options in a quick-service environment. "

As a "relative" of the sushi segment, which has exploded and proven as "mainstream" throughout the U.S., Hsu expects poke to follow suit.

"We will continue to drive consumer awareness through a variety of marketing, public relations and other initiatives," he said.

Growth via franchising

Pokeworks, which has six locations, will hit 17 units by the end of the year. Hsu is hoping to increase that number via franchising and is seeking partners with:

  • Restaurant or other F&B experience.
  • The minimum stated financial criteria.
  • A passion for the space and the Pokéworks brand.
  • The ability to expand over time.

"We're in a prime position for growth as consumers desire healthier alternatives to traditional fast food with a preference for reduced carbon footprint and naturally sustainable food," Hsu said.

Editor's note: This is a monthly series focusing on a specific franchise. If you think your franchise should be featured, email Cherryh at Cherryhc@NetWorldMediaGroup.

Cover photo: Pokeworks

Topics: Franchising & Growth

Cherryh Cansler

Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for

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