CHICAGO - Chris Birkinshaw had barely settled in as CEO at Aloha Poke last year when the budding young chain became engulfed in a branding crisis.
Chicago's largest purveyor of poke, in an effort to protect its trademark, had infuriated some Hawaiians by sending cease-and-desist letters to poke restaurants with "aloha" in their names. Activists urged boycotts. Picketers protested in front of stores. Legislation in Hawaii to protect against cultural appropriation named the company for "in essence claiming ownership" of "aloha."
But the controversy didn't quell Aloha Poke's ambitions. The chain, which has 11 locations in the Chicago area and seven more in a handful other states, is about to embark on an expansion it hopes will quintuple its presence across the country within the next three years.
"I think poke, and particularly our poke, is the food of the future," Birkinshaw, 38, said.
Poke, a dish of cubed raw fish that is commonplace in Hawaii (and pronounced poh-kay), exploded onto Chicago's dining scene in 2016 after gaining popularity on the coasts. Aloha Poke, founded by a native Chicagoan, caught an early wave of the local trend with a shop in the French Market that drew large lunch crowds hungry for bowls that paired marinated salmon or ahi tuna with greens, rice and an array of sauces and toppings.
The shuttering of several poke restaurants since, including the abrupt closure of FireFin's five Chicago locations in 2017, led to some speculation that the mainland appetite for poke had peaked or the market was oversaturated.
But Birkinshaw says every fast-casual concept, from pizza to burritos, is oversaturated in today's hyper-competitive food environment, and "that's a real driver for those of us in the industry who have it in our blood."
While the consumer base for raw fish bowls may be smaller than for sandwiches, trends toward healthy, portable, customizable foods bode well for poke demand, he said.
Aloha Poke has set a goal of having 100 restaurants open by the end of 2022 by partnering with large franchise operators who control more than one unit, said Birkinshaw, who previously led franchising at Potbelly Sandwich Works. The markets it is targeting include St. Louis; Detroit; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; Orlando; Atlanta; Nashville; and the Carolinas.
The company - which in addition to Chicago currently has restaurants in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Boca Raton, Fla. - is focused on expanding into contiguous markets in the central and eastern time zones so it can leverage its existing supply chain and other operations, as well as remain within a two-hour plane ride from corporate headquarters in Chicago's Fulton River District, Birkinshaw said. Last year he closed two restaurants that had briefly opened in San Diego and Los Angeles because the distance was logistically challenging and the southern California poke scene was already so crowded.
"It's aggressive but I think we've got everything it takes," Birkinshaw said of the planned expansion. "We have the leadership, smart advisory, the right infrastructure and supporting processes to make this a reality."
Aloha Poke, which owns all of its Chicago restaurants and is part of a joint venture that owns its locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, has seen the promise of franchising thanks to its relationship with its licensee in D.C. and Boca Raton, Birkinshaw said. That licensee, who also owns Jimmy John's franchises, opened three Aloha Poke restaurants within a year, including two he converted from existing Jimmy John's.
The company, which is owned by a group of investors, also has several high-profile directors on its board who provide guidance. Among them are Ari Levy, son of legendary Chicago restaurateur Larry Levy, whose family is the largest franchisee of Blaze Pizza and owns much of fast-growing Del Taco; and SpotHero CEO Mark Lawrence, who brings digital and on-demand expertise, Birkinshaw said.
The expansion, if successful, would make Aloha Poke one of the larger poke chains in the country, alongside California-based Poke Bar, which has 68 locations, and New York-based Pokeworks, which has 37. Both are also expanding.
Poke restaurants are ripe for franchising, Birkinshaw said, because they require no grills, fryers or ventilation, making them attractive to potential owners who are new to food service.
The franchise model also eases entry into poke by giving entrepreneurs access to a daily supply of fresh sashimi-grade fish – in Aloha's case, long-line-caught tuna from the Pacific Ocean, farmed salmon from Chilean Patagonia and farmed shrimp from Indonesia.
Though many poke concepts are similar, Aloha Poke has some operational differences that Birkinshaw believes gives it a leg up.
Rather than going down a Chipotle-style line, Aloha customers order and pay first at the counter, which allows for efficiencies in the kitchen that can speed up service, Birkinshaw said. The restaurant can also fit into a variety of spaces, such as its 200-square-foot counter spot in the Loop's Revival Food Hall, because ingredients don't have to be lined up behind a sneeze guard, he said.
Birkinshaw declined to disclose the company's revenues, but said average annual sales at each of its 18 restaurants is $800,000. The company has about 100 employees.
Some trend watchers say poke still has a lot of runway left to grow.
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The dish's presence on U.S. restaurant menus has nearly tripled since 2015, and it is expected to keep growing and be found on 6.4% of menus by 2023, according to Chicago-based market research firm Datassential.
Unlike the fleeting booms of cupcakes and frozen yogurt, which proliferated fast then faded when the novelty wore off, poke is more likely to have staying power, said Mark Brandau, managing editor with Datassential.
"It fits nicely with health trends that I don't think are going anywhere," Brandau said. "People are interested in having more seafood."
Poke's rising popularity isn't all good news for poke-specific chains like Aloha Poke, which may face competition from other fast casual restaurants that can add the dish to their menus at a lower price because they can absorb the high cost of the fish in other higher-margin items, Brandau said. Most of the poke growth is projected to occur at sit-down restaurants, where diners expect to pay more, he said.
"It seems like a more natural fit than being asked to pay $13 for a bowl at lunch," he said. "It's a bit of a lift to build repeat customers at that price point."
Kevin Schimpf, manager of industry research at Technomic, said poke chains face "intense competitive pressure" from restaurants that have added the dish to their menus.
"While poke restaurants in desirable, high-traffic locations may still find success, the overall poke boom has likely reached its apex," Schimpf said.
But Birkinshaw is bullish on the brand's prospects, not only from his perch as chief executive but also from his experience as a customer long before he joined the company. While working at Potbelly's corporate offices across the street from French Market, Birkinshaw would queue up in the long lines at Aloha Poke's tiny stall two to five times a week to get his regular order - a volcano bowl (seaweed, edamame, jalapeno, ginger and tobiko with a chili and ponzu mayo sauce) topped with crunchy onions and avocado.
"We have an astounding repeat customer base," he said.
Birkinshaw joined Aloha Poke in late April 2018 after 10 years at Potbelly, taking over the CEO role from founder Zach Friedlander. It isn't where he would have imagined ending up when he graduated from Northwestern University in 2002 with a degree in philosophy and plans to get his PhD in the subject. But graduate school competition was stiff as the dot-com bubble burst, and Birkinshaw instead worked for eight years as a Starbucks store manager before moving to Potbelly and climbing the ranks.
The decision to take the reigns at Aloha Poke was a "no-brainer," he said. At the time Whole Foods and Mariano's were starting to sell poke, signaling the market was broadening. Aloha, which had seven restaurants at the time, had a concept "poised to be replicated," he said.
The honeymoon was short-lived. In July 2018, news went viral of the letters the company's lawyers had sent months earlier, some to poke restaurants on the island or owned elsewhere by Native Hawaiians, demanding they stop using "aloha" or "aloha poke" in their branding to avoid confusion in the marketplace.
This did not sit well in Hawaii, where poke was invented and "aloha" represents not just a greeting, but an approach to living with love and mutual respect. A Hawaii state representative, at the time running for Congress, called for a boycott of the chain, and #noalohapoke hashtags spread on social media. A Change.org petition urging Aloha Poke to change its name gathered nearly 170,000 signatures. Hawaii's state legislature passed a resolution to form a task force to create policies that protect the island's traditional cultural expressions and cultural intellectual property.
"Initially (the backlash) was just quite simply confusing," Birkinshaw said. Aloha Poke in 2016 had registered two federal trademarks on its name and logo and felt it was reasonable to not want to be confused with other businesses as it prepared to expand, he said. It is among more than 1,200 registered trademarks listed on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site that include the word "aloha."
But the company apologized, and after "a lot of listening and a long time of reflection" it has adjusted its approach to its trademark, planning to enforce it only when there's a business with the same name in the same market, he said.
"I think that obviously the approach prior to me coming on board could have been handled more delicately," Birkinshaw said. "We're taking more of a nuanced and situational approach to protecting the trademark."
Poke's mainland adventure has taken it far from its original Hawaiian version, which paired fish with only fresh seaweed, sea salt and kukui nuts.
Birkinshaw is excited for what's to come. The company is testing cauliflower rice and working on introducing spiralized zucchini as bases for its bowls, continuing to cater to the health-minded set.
This year it opened its first restaurant with a drive-thru.
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