Sampling four young poke concepts
The concept: Travels to Hawaii inspired Joann Chung and husband Derek to open Pokeatery, a counter-service restaurant where customers create their own version of poké bowls (pronounced po-kay), the raw fish salad commonly made with ahi tuna. Time-strapped lunch customers are the target, Chung says, and she notes Pokeatery is different from other poké concepts because “we’re seeing a lot of the concepts expanding their menus to more general Japanese, but we’ve chosen to stick to poké. We want to do our one thing really well.”
The stats: The total initial investment to open one Pokeatery runs from $228,795 to $484,650, which includes the $30,000 franchise fee. Pokeatery, with two locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in Austin, Texas, signed a three-unit franchise deal in Northern California in July 2017.
The competition: Hawaiian restaurants and poké concepts in particular have been spreading along the West Cost since 2014. When Chung opened the first Pokeatery in San Mateo, California, in October 2015 she says the market wasn’t nearly as saturated but now “there are four poké places on the same street as us. Luckily we’ve been able to establish our brand and so it hasn’t hurt our business.”
The challenge: Chung says the biggest challenge has been “the amount of legal hurdles to make sure we’re doing everything correctly” with the launch of franchising. Also ensuring quality standards don’t waver because, when raw fish is a main ingredient, “health and food safety is paramount,” says Chung. “We refuse to compromise on quality.”
The concept: Taking its name from a shark that’s known as a discerning feeder, LemonShark Poké is positioning itself as a premium brand, says President and COO Tobi Miller. Offering signature bowls and a build-your-own option—plus beer and sake—in a restaurant setting that emphasizes interior design and a “tropical modern motif,” LemonShark seeks to also attract evening diners while other concepts are “hyper-focused on the lunch ticket.” Fun facts: Miller was a founding member of ‘90s rock band The Wallflowers and is a Yogurtland franchisee.
The stats: Since opening the first LemonShark in San Bernardino, California, in 2016, the company has added two units in Southern California with two franchise stores also open (including one in Orlando, Florida). LemonShark offers two business models: in-line restaurants of 1,250 to 2,250 square feet at an investment of $232,850-$473,700; and food court/kiosk restaurants of 400 to 1,650 square feet at an investment of $148,350-$290,700.
The competition: While Miller keeps up on the development of other poké brands, in his view LemonShark, with its $10 to $15 price point, is a premium concept competing more with the likes of Shake Shack and Chipotle.
The challenge: The right brand positioning is a balancing act between lunch and dinner “and even later night” appeal, says Miller, all while conveying quality. On the franchisee side, LemonShark has an area development program Miller hopes will attract larger multi-unit operators.
POKÉ BAR DICE & MIX
The concept: Founded by the same owners of Yanagi Sushi, a popular spot open in Northridge, California, since 1990, the first Poké Bar opened its doors in West Hollywood in March 2015. At Yanagi Sushi, the poké appetizer was one of the most popular items and served as the catalyst for Poké Bar. The team of Yoon Ju, Jeong Ju and Jason Park started franchising their create-your-own poké combinations concept in early 2017, with a focus on appealing to consumers who wanted a quick, healthy food option.
The stats: Poké Bar estimates a total initial investment between $157,800 and $438,000, including a $30,000 franchise fee, with real estate and leasehold improvements the most likely opportunities for keeping the cost down. Poké Bar has 37 open locations in six states (California, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, New York).
The competition: With locations in more than 20 major markets and 70-plus franchise locations in development, Pokéworks is the largest competitor to Poké Bar. For its part, Poké Bar aggressively uses social media to offer specials and discounts, and many of its locations offer delivery via Grubhub.
The challenge: International expansion is a target for Poké Bar. The brand already has a location open in Auckland, New Zealand, which it sees as a springboard to launching in Australia. Canada is another country Poké Bar identified for growth, where already independent restaurant operators are capitalizing on the craze.
POKÉMIX by Flour + Tea
The concept: Flour + Tea LLC is the parent company of PokéMix and started in 2012 as a tea and bakery shop in Pasadena, California. Brothers David and Johnson Wang later decided to add poké bowls to the menu and eventually opened PokéMix in 2015, serving poké along with a selection of iced, hot and blended teas. According to its FDD, PokéMix units “offer generous portions a very reasonable prices, especially considering the premium raw seafood standards,” with bowls starting around $10.
The stats: A typical PokéMix is about 1,200 square feet and costs between $100,700 and $272,050 to open, including a franchise fee of $25,000. That fee may be lowered to $20,000 if additional franchises are purchased. The first—and currently only—PokéMix location is in Pasadena, California, and it began offering franchises in January 2016.
The competition: PokéMix is among the most fledgling of poké concepts to start franchising and it faces stiff competition not just from the other brands included here but from the likes of franchises Ocean Poké Co. and The Poké Shack, and growing chains such as Sweetfin Poké.
The challenge: Attracting qualified franchisees, who not only have several other poké concepts but dozens of QSR and fast casual options from which to choose, is a hurdle to overcome. Hawaiian restaurants in general have added nearly 300 locations since 2015, giving consumers more choices and increasing the need for franchise brands to find a way to stand out.