Trial at Lucky Trial at Lucky

Poke may have bright future but retailers still testing the concept

Demand in landlocked states expected to increase in about five years

Poke just might be one of the hottest trends in restaurants right now. The seafood dish, which originated in Hawaii, typically consists of frozen or fresh fish, mixed with other ingredients such as seasonings, vegetables or sauces to form a salad. 

An early mainland adopter was Seattle, according to Cameron Orel, senior culinary associate at Kathy Casey Food Studios- Liquid Kitchen. And the poke trend is beginning to spread across the nation.

“Our multi-unit restaurant chains are requesting poke development. This will soon spread in to the mainstream market and then into the grocery stores,” Orel said. “The consumers are definitely becoming more global as the minutes tick by.”

Orel said that as consumers encounter poke in restaurants and grocery stores, they are becoming more open to incorporating the dish into their everyday lives.  She expects the trend to continue to grow on the coasts, with popularity picking up in the nation’s interior in the next three to four years. 

“It’s definitely not a flash in the pan,” said Orel. 

Several grocery stores in the Northwest have already added poke to their culinary offerings, including Metropolitan Market and Uwajimaya. 

Another retailer, The Save Mart Cos., is considered following in those footsteps, and investigated the feasibility of adding made-to-order poke stations in its deli section. Kevin Cabrera corporate executive chef, said that a fresh poke bar was put through trial runs at one of the company’s banners, Lucky. The result of the initial tests, however, were not what the Modesto, Calif.-based grocer had hoped for. 

Cabrera described the prototype setup as a portable station that included all the ingredients necessary to construct fresh, made-to-order poke bowls in-store. The station included key proteins such as salmon and tuna. 

Cabrera compared the trial to bringing a Chipotle counter to the seafood department of a grocery store. 

The idea was being considered as a potential new addition for stores under Save Mart banners and it was tentatively expected to become a permanent fixture in 2018. 

Ultimately, the company decided to deploy poke as a grab-and-go option using prepackaged bowls.

But Cabrera is optimistic about the seafood style’s future, particularly in light of the success it is seeing in restaurants. 

“Foodservice trends tend to be way ahead before it hits retail,” Cabrera said, suggesting that as restaurants that serve the dish become more common, more grocery store visitors will be seeking the seafood style during their strolls through the perimeter. 

“The education piece of it I think is very important,” he continued, stressing that familiarity with the concept will be key to its growth. Cabrera added that customers who already familiar with sushi and sashimi may be more open to trying a poke bowl. 

As for those serving the dish at a traditional deli counter, extensive training would likely not be necessary. 

While some initial instruction may be required, a skilled, seafood professional can handle assembling the components for a fresh, made-to-order bowl, according to Cabrera. 

Jonathan Whalley, education coordinator at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), understands the challenges grocery stores face when looking to install a fresh poke station, and the work that would be required to keep one running smoothly. 

“A successful execution of a poke bar concept will require absolute product freshness and will need to be kept refreshed and cleaned regularly,” Whalley said. “Poke is, at its core, a dish that epitomizes freshness. Starting with high-quality products will help with flavor, appearance and even help reduce unwanted aromas.” 

Whalley continued, saying that  “time and temperature training is imperative. It's also a great idea for associates to experience good poke so they understand what it is, how it is served and how to identify product past its shelf life.” 

Orel believes that as grocery stores learn more about preparing poke dishes, they will find a balance that works for them. She suggests utilizing seafood that arrives frozen and then thawing before serving.  

She points out that the freezing kills dangerous microbes but also helps the store ration out the correct amount that it will need for a day as they can turn to small packages of frozen meat. 

Instead of thawing a full 10 or 15 pounds and hoping to sell as much of that as possible on a given day, Orel recommends that stores thaw out one or two pounds of fish and then simply selling that until it is gone.

TAGS: Deli
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