Signs are that poke is ready to shed the “emerging” piece of the “emerging trend” label that it’s picked up in the last 12-18 months as the popularity of the fast-casual version of the dish spreads out from the West Coast.

In short, poke (pronounced ‘po-kay’) is a Hawaiian raw fish salad traditionally comprised of diced tuna, seaweed and inamona (ground kukui nuts and salt). In its current form, one that lends itself well to the build-your-own fast-casual trend, poke often consists of a rice bowl with seasoned sushi-grade raw fish, various veg toppings with a Japanese bent, and sauce (of the soy-, ponzu- and sriracha-based varieties among others, including more authentic approaches). Other Japanese-inspired menu items, like nori wraps, are common.

The appeal for investors seeking to build out a fast-casual poke empire is rooted in the small menu, small space and relatively small investment requirements. The appeal to consumers lies in healthy menu choices and that it’s “like sushi, but different” in the fast-casual space.

Restaurant groups across the country are looking for their opportunity to become the next Chipotle or Blaze (minus the whole food poising thing in the case of the former). Chain Store Guide is tracking the emerging concepts and adding poke-based fast-casual chains and chain-lets to our Database of Chain Restaurant Operators on a regular basis. Here are five of the ones that we’re watching:

  • Poke Bar: Currently the largest chain on our list, founded by the same owners of a popular Northridge, CA spot Yanagi Sushi, all 13 Poke Bar locations are found in California with half in greater Los Angeles.
  • Pokéworks:  The most geographically ambitious of the aspiring chains, Orange County, CA-based Pokéworks has 2 California locations, and it recently opened a shop in New York City. Plans call for openings in Northern California (2), Manhattan (2), Boston (1) and the West Coast’s northern poke capital, Seattle (1).
  • Aloha Poke Co.: This Chicago-born company (circa 2016) has 2 locations in The Loop and 1 freestanding store in Lakeview, making it the first concept with more than one location in the Windy City.
  • Ahipoki Bowl: Hitting the ground running, Ahi Mahi Enterprise LLC opened 6 shops between February and July this year, including 2 franchised locations outside of California – Scottsdale and Chandler, Arizona. Look for 8 to 10 additional locations in the next year roughly split between California and Arizona with a store near the ASU campus up next.
  • Sweetfin Poké: With only 1 Santa Monica, CA location up and running, Sweetfin doesn’t yet qualify for inclusion in CSG’s Database of Chain Restaurant Operators, but with private equity funding coming through earlier in 2016 and 4 additional stores to open in short order, we’re monitoring their progress and expect rapid growth.