For a foodservice offering noted for its stylish welcoming ambience it’s not surprising to learn that Poke House has its origins in Italy. The first restaurant was opened in Milan in November 2018 by business partners Matteo Pichi and Vittoria Zanetti. The dream – to offer healthy food for the masses.
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Four years on there are more than 40 restaurants spread across Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and the UK. There are also two locations in Miami, Florida, US. The Poke House philosophy is Hawaiian taste, California soul. Every day it serves colourful, customizable bowl comprised of protein, fruits, vegetables, and homemade sauces in restaurants decked out in a comparably colourful way. Using plenty of neon, soft pink, and natural materials. Pichi described it as “A very California vibe – hospitality, but in a chilled way.”
At time of writing Poke House has 10 bricks and mortar premises in the UK. When Poke House opened in UK they acquired Ahi Poke, which had six branches. “We knew that the UK was a very important market and when we got this opportunity, it felt like a great fit as Ahi Poke in some sense wanted to join the Poke House movement,” Pichi said in 2021. “It wouldn’t have been easy to go to the UK and start from scratch, but we now have big plans for the future and cannot wait to start from their locations and open many more.”
The most recent opening was Battersea Power Station on 14 October 2022. It’s inside the old turbine hall of the 1950s power station, an iconic feature of London’s skyline and riverscape and the city’s latest shopping destination. “It’s an amazing development. It’s a work of art,” says Juan Mosqueda. Poke House’s UK country manager.
Location still factor to success (plus delivery)
Part of Mosqueda’s job is finding new locations for Poke House restaurants. Some of the criteria for what makes a good location has been shaped by the pandemic. Footfall is still the first consideration, but now the location of that footfall has changed. “What has changed [since the pandemic] is the distribution of our stores,” he says. “Before it was more like central London, office areas. We are now looking to bring our healthy poke to more residential areas. And with our delivery partners we do cover most areas of London.”
After the experience of the pandemic where many restaurants were unable to welcome guests into their premises and pivoted to takeaway instead, delivery is an important part of any ambitious restaurant chain. The company has expanded to a dark kitchen in Cambridge from where they deliver across the city.
As other operators have found before a dark kitchen location is the ideal way to test if there is a market for their food offering before committing to the expense of brick-and-mortar premises. “That was our first location outside London, trying it out to see how it was. It opened during the pandemic,” says Mosqueda. “It has been a success and we are now looking at a permanent site in Cambridge. This will be takeaway only. We will be the first poke restaurant in Cambridge.” As a university city Cambridge and hub of the UK tech industries Cambridge has a high population of young people. “That’s where you see the younger generation loves healthy, tasty food,” says Mosqueda. “We’re doing very well there considering the limited availability – we’re only available on an app. I think there’s a lot of potential for Poke House in Cambridge.”
Focusing on the experiential
That said Poke House isn’t putting all its eggs into the delivery basket. ““All the people who come through our stores enjoy spending time in there too. It’s not a massive change in those who come, but a change in the dynamics,” says Mosqueda. “For operators over the whole UK now delivery is an important chunk of it [business]. However, people still do enjoy coming out and Poke House is about more than bowls of healthy food, we focus on the whole experience. We want people to feel relaxed, we have nice music and a nice environment. Customers still want to come and enjoy a little bit of time in our house.” Mosqueda’s way of describing the appeal of the restaurants sums up what Poke House is about; with its relaxed Californian vibe and carefully constructed ambience it’s saying: “Welcome to our house.”
With houses in many countries across Europe are there are not as many regional variations as you might think. “We do have seasonal variation across the whole brand. We maintain standards and a normal menu with small variances for each country. For example, in the UK people tend to like more spicy food. In Spain we have soups on the menu. In Portugal the highest selling poke bowl is the chicken one, because eating fish in Portugal is a different experience – by the beach, very fresh. But across Europe our menu is very similar,” says Mosqueda.
“At the core of our business we care about the freshness of our ingredients and where they come from – locally produced and locally grown. It serves us in two ways, we support the local economy and also we get all the fresh ingredients every day to our stores,” he adds.
Not here for quick profit
Alongside premises the other side of the growth formula involves finding talented staff to serve up the food and vision of Poke House. Recruiting staff for hospitality businesses has been proving difficult in the UK, and across Europe and North America. Mosqueda acknowledges this. “In the hospitality industry we all suffered from the combination of Brexit and the pandemic. All the talent that was here went away during the pandemic and was unable to come back after Brexit. Across the industry we are all suffering, everyone I speak to is finding it tough to recruit.”
Poke House has a way to tackle this potential barrier to its proposed growth. “We are providing more benefits and providing good training and ensuring we are not just here to make a quick profit, but also look after our staff,” says Mosqueda. “We want to create a culture where people see our houses as more than just a place to work and as a place where they can grow and develop. We are growing, quite a lot, we would love to take a person who hadn’t thought of hospitality as a career and nurture them all the way to become a general manager, area manager and so on.
Changing the mindset
Indeed, the opportunities are there and it just depends on changing the mindset where hospitality has been regarded as a temporary job when it can be very fulfilling and re-warding. As Mosqueda says: “How you treat your staff in store helps them see that, in the long run, hospitality is a place where you can have a long-term profession and grow very quickly. We’re here to teach you the skills as long as you have the right attitude. We hire for attitude, not for skills.”
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As well as offering staff members the opportunity of a bright future, what is in store for Poke House, in the UK? “We have a lot of potential for growth in the UK,” says Mosqueda. “London is one country by itself and there is the rest of the UK as well. We plan to expand quickly to treat more people to our healthy food. We have a rapid expansion planned for the next year and already have some locations signed and close to being completed. For Q1, Q2 and Q4 2023 we are looking to open 15 more locations.”
It seems the appetite for healthy food, served in a convenient bowl in relaxing and welcoming setting is only going to increase in future. And Poke House is thinking and worldwide. “I think there is a global trend for humanity to go healthier and eat local and we can offer that very easily in our restaurants. It’s our goal to bring, healthy, fresh, local food to as many people as we can. We are already the biggest Poke restaurant chain in Europe, and we plan to expand that across the world,” Mosqueda declares.
“Although it may feel that we are already a big company, we’re just getting started. I think the future looks very bright and we’re planning to open in new locations and continue to invest in young people and help them realise that hospitality can be a profession. Along the way we want to make people happy and transport them to California.”