Poke fanaticism is not cooling down. Pokeworks’ CEO Regina Cheung explains why.
By Xintian Wang, AsAmNews Contributor
Poke, the Hawaiian sensation that’s like a tropical vacation for your taste buds, has taken the food world by storm.
It’s not just because it’s fun to say it — pronounced like “okay.” It’s a dish that’s as diverse as the island itself. Imagine a dish that’s part sushi, part salad, and all flavor. The best part? You get to DIY your food in the best way possible.
At Pokeworks, you are the captain of your foodie ship. Led by CEO Regina Cheung, Pokeworks has not only led the Poke phenomenon in the culinary landscape but has also preserved and promoted Hawaiian culture in the United States.
Cheung previously worked as the Chief Financial Officer before taking the role of CEO. She is a driving force behind Pokeworks’ growth from a 750-square-foot take-out-only space to a global franchise.
“The idea of Pokeworks dates back to 2015 when co-founders Mike Chen and Mike Wu met over lunch. They reminisced about the delicious poke they enjoyed on the island of Maui and wondered why it’s not a staple on the mainland,” Cheung told AsAmNews, shedding light on the brand’s humble beginnings. “We took inspiration from build-your-own fast-casuals like Chipotle and developed the notion of ‘Poke Your Way.'”
However, the Poke craze did not start when the company first launched. Wu and his co-founding team spent months developing Pokework’s unique flavor in his garage, but when the restaurant first opened, Americans came in asking if Pokeworks was a Pokemon cards shop.
“Besides correcting our guests on the pronunciation of ‘Poke,’ I had to turn away several guests with ‘Sorry, no, we do not sell Pokemon cards,’” Cheung said. “Educating the market was definitely an early challenge we had to overcome.”
Pokeworks’ persistence in educating the U.S. market finally paid off. Today, Pokeworks has over 70 locations across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Taiwan. Commenting on the company’s expansion strategy, Cheung emphasized the importance of finding the right partners with multi-unit restaurant experience.
“We have a Franchisee-First culture that prioritizes the support from business owners out there, and many of them are immigrants,” she says.
Similar to many in the restaurant industry, the pandemic was a significant challenge for Pokeworks. “The pandemic and recovery were a period of setbacks for Pokeworks, especially for locations in dense urban areas. The silver lining is that we used this period to upgrade many of our internal systems and processes,” Cheung saaid. According to Cheung, the global chain has built a real estate assessment model, upgraded its loyalty program, and put in a robust data warehouse and reporting tool accessible by all franchise owners during the pandemic.
Innovation is key to staying competitive in the restaurant industry.
“We engage our consumers with chef-curated, crave-able limited-time offers,” Cheung said, mentioning Pokeworks’ popular Luxe Lobster bowl and its commitment to sourcing quality ingredients.
Pokeworks isn’t just about food. It’s about giving back to the community and supporting the AAPI community. In response to the devastating Maui wildfire in early August, Pokeworks went immediately into action to support Maui United Ways as well as the Chef Hui Relief Fund. On Aug. 16, the company hosted a fundraiser, in which 20 percent of all proceeds on orders made on order.pokeworks.com went towards Ohana in Maui.
During COVID, the company also partnered with Heart of Dinner to nourish NYC’s Asian elders and organized campaigns that donated over one million medical masks and supplies to healthcare workers.
As the first female Asian American CEO at Pokeworks, Cheung is a source of inspiration for many. “As immigrants, we are taught that hard work is required and failure is not an option. That’s the spirit that embodies the culture of Pokeworks,” she said. Cheung hopes that many more people can support AAPI-owned businesses outside of AAPI month and her identity as a female CEO won’t be headline-worthy in the press.
For aspiring AAPI entrepreneurs, Cheung and Pokeworks’ co-founder Peter Yang have valuable advice: “Don’t do it alone. Learn to ask for help. It all starts within your community. We’ve learned to set aside our egos and each of us plays a distinct and vital role within the organization.”
Today, the Poke trend is growing faster than ever. People can’t get enough of this delicious dish that’s as healthy as it is tasty. Cheung says that Hawaiian-inspired cuisine is more than just a trend; it’s a lifestyle. It’s all about using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and embracing the laid-back island mindset.
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