Founded in 2015, Pokeworks emerged as a culinary venture stemming from a shared vision. Drawing inspiration from numerous trips to Hawaii, the founders were captivated by the distinct flavors of poke, prompting them to bring this fresh, healthful, and beloved island delicacy to the mainland United States.
With a steadfast commitment to a wholesome lifestyle and premium ingredients, Pokeworks offers a culinary experience that reverberates with authenticity. Their menu artfully captures the genuine essence of Hawaiian flavors, showcasing a medley of signature creations and customizable options.
Aside from this, Pokeworks champions sustainability, prioritizing responsibly sourced seafood and conscientious material choices. This ethos extends to all aspects of the brand’s operations, affirming a holistic dedication to social and environmental responsibility.
Asian Hustle Network had the chance to sit down for an interview with one of Pokeworks’ co-founders, Peter Yang. Join us as we delve deeper into their story and uncover the insights that drive their success.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The idea of Pokeworks dates back to 2015, when my co-founders, Mike Chen and Mike Wu, met over lunch. Mike Chen just had his wedding in Maui and Mike Wu had just come back to the mainland after months in Oahu launching a restaurant. They reminisced about the delicious poke they enjoyed on the island and wondered why it’s not a staple on the mainland. We took inspiration from build-your-own fast casuals like Chipotle, and ran with the idea of “Poke Your Way”. As cliche as it sounds, we spent months R&D’ing out of Mike Wu’s garage until we all felt the flavors were perfect.
Several months later, we opened the doors to our first location in midtown Manhattan – a tiny 750-square-foot space. It was a cold December, and most of the city had left for the holidays – it was quiet… and our sales were bleak. Besides correcting our guests on the pronunciation of “poke”, I had to turn away several guests with “Sorry, no, we do not sell Pokemon cards.” Educating the market was definitely an early challenge we had to overcome.
The new year rolled around and our lines got progressively longer day after day. As business grew, we kept our heads down and continued to focus on operational excellence – great products and great guest service. Word quickly spread, and we became the popular kids on the block.
Fast forward 8 years and a pandemic later, we’re 70 locations proud across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Taiwan.
THE CONCEPT OF SUSHI BURRITO
We aimed to create a handheld version of Poke by blending two of my personal favorites: a burrito and a sushi roll – what’s not to love? We had fun with it and added it to the menu.
Little did we know, this menu addition would become a turning point in our growth.
During a lunch rush one day, a representative from Business Insider walked into our tiny shop and asked if she could record a video featuring our Poke Burrito. Despite my initial hesitation – our shop was so small that my staff and I could barely squeeze another body in without slowing down our line – I agreed. Well, it was a good thing I let her shoot the video because once it was uploaded, it went absolutely viral.
It. Was. Insanity. This short 1 minute clip, triggered lines around the block for months. We had to hire bouncers for crowd control!
POKEWORKS’ COMMITMENT TO SUSTAINABILITY
Early in our brand development, the co-founders took deliberate steps to define our core values. One of them is: “Sustainability – meeting today’s needs without compromising tomorrow.” The founders understand that it goes beyond just making a profit, but how we can leave the world a better place for our children. Personally, since becoming a father recently, this sentiment has never rung louder. We want to make sure it’s not just a marketing buzzword, but a core value that helps guide our every decision.
All of the seafood that we source carries a “Best Choice” rating by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, procured from vendors that are environmentally and socially responsible. Our tuna is exclusively procured from Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sources, a reflection of our commitment to ending overfishing and promoting sustainable fishing practices. Our salmon holds certifications from both the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), embodying the highest industry standards for minimizing environmental impact and upholding the well-being of communities, workers, and animals.
For many of our store build-outs, the wood used in our dining rooms is of local species and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. In some of our shops, the facade of our counters is made with recycled bamboo chopsticks.
Our commitment to sustainability extends to exploring alternative seafood and plant-based products. We are partnering with leading plant-based food manufacturers such as Impact Foods and Omni Foods to explore alternative seafood options. Our plant-based spam musubis are also a huge hit! We’ve also partnered with innovators like Wildtype, to explore cutting-edge cultivated seafood.
We seek franchisees who embody a passion for the brand and resonate with our mission statement and core values. One of which is being service-obsessed: We put the team’s needs first. We are here to serve our guests and community. We do this by being responsive, helpful, productive, and following through with our commitments, and spreading aloha.
I’d like to extend a big shout-out to Alvin Zhang, an exceptional franchisee at Pokeworks who embodies this value and who truly shines as both an entrepreneur and an outstanding individual dedicated to his community. At the peak of the pandemic, when hospitals were facing dire circumstances, Alvin and his Pokeworks team worked overtime to generously donate over 2000 poke bowls to 12 hospitals across Queens NY, and Long Island.
UPLIFTING THE AAPI COMMUNITY
We take pride in the Asian-inspired products and flavors that we serve. From spicy Sichuan poke to sweet chili gochujang poke. Sharing these flavors from our roots to the mainstream is a great privilege.
During COVID, we partnered with Heart of Dinner to help nourish NYC’s community of Asian elders. They have a wonderful mission of supporting the AAPI community, and we’re proud to be a part of it.
We also take immense pride in having Regina Cheung, a Chinese-American, at the helm as CEO at Pokeworks, leading the charge with remarkable expertise and charisma. Furthermore, all of the co-founders are Asian-American and share the immigrant journey.
We hope that our story and Pokeworks’ AAPI leaders can inspire future generations of AAPI entrepreneurs to dive confidently into their careers and passions.
PETER YANG’S ADVICE TO ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS
Don’t do it alone. Learn to ask for help. It all starts within your community.
We are very proud to say that there are a total of 8 co-founders at Pokeworks. Most advisors will tell you that’s crazy, but we made it work! We’ve learned to set aside our egos and each of us plays a distinct and vital role within the organization.
This principle aligns perfectly with another core value of ours: the incredible power of teamwork.
CONNECT WITH POKEWORKS