From the sushi-mania of the 80s to today’s bacon-infused, low carb diets, food trends are notoriously volatile in nature. When Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, opened up her lunchbox to reveal seaweed-wrapped sushi in The Breakfast Club, her peers looked away in disgust. It was a culture clash no one expected. Claire’s fellow students were eating typical American fare, while she was tucking into rice, seaweed, and raw fish. Sure, the sushi fad has come and gone, but it’s left its mark on the American psyche. Today, going out for sushi is as American as splurging on burgers and fries. Enter the poke bowl: a Hawaiian dish consisting of raw fish chunks tossed with rice, vegetables, and umami-enhanced sauces.
So, how popular is poke? GrubHub data shows a 365% increase in year-over-year deliveries of poke bowls. Undeniably, many consumers have already caught on to the poke craze. Yet, there are many who’ve never sampled this unique Hawaiian dish. Datassential shows that 24% of consumers want to (but haven’t yet) tried a poke bowl despite a 167% increase in poke bowls on restaurant menus.
So, what does this mean for the future of poke bowls? Are these hyper-Instagrammable raw food dishes a trend-of-the-moment or are they here to stay like the formidable post-craze sushi empire?
What Is a Poke Bowl?
A poke (pronounced po-kay and rhymes with okay) bowl usually contains a serving of salted, cubed, and marinated raw fish (typically yellowfin tuna or ahi) with rice (typically sushi, jasmine, or white), flavorings (often soy sauce, sesame oil, and crushed candlenut), and veggies (usually spring onions, chili peppers, limu, or cabbage).
Of course, many poke bowls contain other Japanese-style ingredients. However, the base of a poke bowl is simple — rice + fish + veggies + soy sauce.
You may be wondering — “Isn’t that just sashimi in a bowl?” And the answer is… sort of. The secret to poke lies in its distinctive past.
A Brief History of the Poke Bowl
Poke is Hawaiian for “to cut crosswise into pieces.” Also, the name of the dish is actually a reference to its ease of creation in the fast-casual restaurant industry.
Poke bowls have been a staple in some cultures for centuries. The Polynesians were making meals out of raw reef fish, crushed candlenut, and seaweed long before Western explorers reached the islands. However, as is often the case, the rise of globalization caused the regional staple to evolve into an international delight almost overnight.
The modern poke bowl (and also the name poke) arrived on American shores in the 70s, when ahi and yellowfin tuna became readily available for sushi.
New sashimi-grade ingredients helped poke become an affordable, healthy, and attractive alternative to sushi and burrito bowls. Poke is also easy to create. Restaurants can buy raw sushi-grade yellowfin tuna, chop it up and serve it over rice with “all of the fixins” quicker than they can prepare conventional noodle bowls.
How Poke Grew In Popularity
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that poke started to explode in popularity in the United States. The rise of healthy, fast-serve lines at Chipotle and Qdoba changed the food preparation and delivery paradigm entirely. Poke enters this framework and immediately gains new proponents. Here’s why: the dish is delicious, healthy, and can be prepared quickly.
Additionally, it’s a fairly inexpensive dish. A large poke bowl can be had for under $15 at many restaurants. That’s the price of a single sushi roll (if you’re lucky.) However, it’s not just the low price and speed-of-delivery that’s winning over consumers. There’s another reason poke rose in popularity in the 2000s.
The traditional reef fish is grey and bland looking — an unfortunate characteristic that won’t fly in today’s “food-photos-first” social media world. Today, the delicate pink flesh of ahi tuna combined with traditional Japanese sushi presentation styles has brought out the Instagram star in poke.
Poke Bowls and Social Media
Social media is a food lover’s paradise. Around 75% of consumers make restaurant choices using social media, and restaurants are the most engaged brand-type on social media. So, food and image-rich social channels were made for each other. Not convinced? Popular food-related hashtags absolutely dominate the social sphere, and there are over 200 million posts with the “food porn” hashtag (#foodporn).
There are 3 things that make poke bowls Instagram stars: They’re healthy, colorful, and inexpensive.
1. They’re Healthy
Today, social media is a vehicle for promoting food trends. In fact, studies show that social media can be a serious driver for healthy eating habits. One study commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture found that those who were engaged via social media “increased their consumption of healthy foods at mealtimes.”
Not only does social media help promote healthy eating habits, but it rewards them too. Influencers like @feelgoodfoodie, @fitmencook, and @minimalistbaker command well over a million followers. And, they aren’t even scratching the surface of the healthy food empire tucked into the corners of every social media site.
Here’s the great thing — poke is healthy. Omega 3 fats, lean protein, and complex carbs are all things you can associate with the dish. And when something is healthy, you don’t have to feel guilty about indulging your love for it!
2. They’re Colorful
Poke bowls don’t have to be made a certain way. Of course, “traditional” bowls exist. However, you’re not bound to a strict culinary script when it comes to this Hawaiian staple. When a dish contains simple elements such as rice, fish, and condiments, there’s lots of room for creative renditions of the original.
One look through the more than 600,000 posts of #pokebowl on Instagram should verify this. Red onions and fresh green avocado can be great photogenic additions. Also, pineapple, peas, and shredded carrots can add some interesting dashes of color to an already gorgeous bowl.
Don’t be afraid to get adventurous, however. Remember, we all eat with our eyes.
3. They’re Inexpensive
Poke bowls are a relatively inexpensive indulgence. You don’t have to shell out $30 to savor some good food. Of course, if you want to go all out, you can frequent high-end restaurants that cater to more expensive tastes.
However, the food-prep-ready nature of the dish lends itself to fast, low-cost operations. In an Inc. interview, Michael Parlapiano — executive creator at Culinary Edge — maintained that even the most cash-strapped entrepreneur “can open a poke restaurant in a closet.”
The low barrier of entry lends itself to low-cost, high-quality, and healthy food that’s easy on the eyes. If that doesn’t make something Instagram-friendly, we don’t know what does.
Restaurants That Are Winning With Poke
There are too many restaurants serving poke to list. Massive chains like Red Lobster, Pei Wei, and Cheesecake Factory have all dipped their toes into the cool waters of Hawaii… without being anywhere near it.
Tip: This goes to show — you don’t have to be a Hawaiian restaurant to serve poke, just like you don’t have to have a Japanese-themed restaurant to whip out some sushi plates.
So, with these many options, let’s look at one city — New York City. What NYC restaurants are winning big with poke on their menus? Let’s look at two of the most popular ones.
When it comes to Japanese poke fusion, almost no one is doing it better than the Executive Chef of Chikarashi, Michael Jong Lim. With incredible bowls that let you dive headfirst into firm bites of bluefin topped with sesame soy sauce and garlic chips, Chikarashi is redefining the poke market AND taking a stab at the sushi market.
This blended eatery caters to both crowds (granted, they’re often the same crowd) with inspired dishes from a set menu. Such an approach distinguishes Chickarashi from many Chipotle-style places, but it also gives it an edge over its competitors. Here’s why: Each meal is handcrafted with great skill and precision by head chef Michael Jong Lim.
This eatery keeps things simple, efficient, and bright. Instead of focusing on chef-curated poke meals like Chikarashi — Pokeworks takes the ever-efficient Chipotle model and masterfully applies it to poke. You can pick what you want in your bowl from the line, and it’s then rapidly assembled for you.
Pokeworks has opened multiple locations, and it’s successful enough to warrant NYC blog posts about its long lines. There isn’t anything that Pokeworks is doing that’s unique. However, it’s certainly doing all of the “non-unique” things incredibly well.
Is Poke Dying?
At this point, you’re probably looking for an answer to your question — is poke a fad or not? The answer is yes and no. Poke certainly has value to consumers, and we fully expect it to receive a permanent home on many restaurant menus. However, poke is big business in cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Be forewarned: you’ll face lots of competition if you decide to venture into the poke sphere in these cities.
Spinfish Poke House in Los Angeles — once touted as an up-and-coming poke giant — closed its doors seemingly overnight in the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, the heavily publicized Sweecatch (with Chef Lee An Wong from Top Chef) has already gone underwater with a bankruptcy filing. Another restaurant, FireFin Poke recently closed all five of its locations in Chicago.
Due to the closings, Eater concludes that poke is trending downwards in popularity. However, we think that’s an unfair prognosis. Poke isn’t dying – it’s evolving. People are redefining their taste preferences. So, restauranteurs with savvy marketing, lean operating, and smart management capabilities will succeed where others have failed in cities like New York City.
The Future of Hawaii’s Signature Dish: It’s Not What You Think
So, is poke dead or slowing down? Compared to 2016 — poke isn’t a “trend” anymore. It’s a functional food diners appreciate. People aren’t buying it just because their friends posted it on Instagram. They’re getting it because they like it.
By all indications, poke is earning its place next to sushi as a post-trend Goliath. And, every restaurant can leverage this wholesome dish to get people in the door. Don’t believe us? Here’s a restaurant chain doing just that: the Chicago-based Aloha Poke Company will open 100 locations in the U.S. by the end of 2022. The CEO Chris Birkinshaw admits the expansion is a bold move, but he thinks the brand has what it takes to bring poke to the mainstream American culinary scene.
Want to play it safe? Make it a seafood-based LTO to test the reactions of your regulars. No need to include it as a permanent menu fixture, yet…until the marketplace demands it.
However, if you’re going to feature this amazing dish, you need the right kind of online ordering system to support the 60% of people who are going to order it online.
How 9Fold Can Help You Serve Up Some Great Poke
Poke bowls go straight to the heart of Gen Z. They’re healthy, colorful, fun, tasty, and #foodporn-friendly. However, Gen Z isn’t going to be coming to your restaurant to grab a bowl. 24% of Gen Z orders takeout 3 to 4 times PER WEEK.
If you don’t deliver, they’ll go to your competitors. Sure, you could use a 3rd party delivery app. However, those 3rd party app companies will take 25% off the top of your earnings. Here’s a better way: get your own hyper-branded, personalized online portal that gives you 100% control over your brand, marketing campaigns, and earnings.
With 9Fold, you can tap into the power of poke without all of the pain. What’s not to love? Contact us today to schedule a free demo of our powerful and intuitive online ordering portal!