Pokeatery, located on South B Street in downtown San Mateo, was one of the first poke places to open up on the Peninsula, back in October of 2015. Now, they lead the pack as the trend covers the Bay Area with their California-style poke and Dole Whip floats.
Joann Chung, chef and owner of Pokeatery quit her job in finance to take care of her son — and opened a hugely popular poke place with her family instead.
I sat down with Joann to discover the ins and outs of this new trend and why Pokeatery is “truly a labor of love.”
What’s the story behind Pokeatery?
“I was a new mom and my son was 3 months old when we dreamed up Pokeatery. My husband and I took our son to Hawaii a week before I was scheduled to return from maternity leave. While there, we indulged in delicious poke and joked around about opening a poke place in the Bay Area. We didn’t actually take the idea seriously until I tried to return to my job in finance … We searched high and low and were on multiple waitlists [for daycare for our son] and we were finally able to land a spot at one.
Three days at the daycare, and I received a text message from the main provider. They told me he cried all day, and would not take a bottle so it was not going to be a good fit. I was left with no daycare options and forced to quit my job in portfolio management.
This was when we decided to go all in on our idea for Pokeatery. [It] truly is a labor of love. My son came with me everywhere while we were trying to get it up and running strapped to my chest on a carrier. We joke that he is the real supervisor/CEO in all of this. Even the construction for Pokeatery was done by my father and uncle. They would drive up from Los Angeles whenever time permitted to work on our store! It really was a big family effort to get it up and running.”
Where did your idea for Dole Whip come from? Can’t you only find it at Disneyland?
“Actually, my husband and I are huge Disney fans. We would go to Disneyland once a month even though we lived up here, so we always joked that if we ever opened a restaurant, we had to include Dole Whip [pineapple soft serve].”
What sets you apart from the other poke pieces in the valley?
“The quality of our ingredients. For instance, we use Aloha Shoyu brand soy sauce (imported directly from Hawaii) exclusively for our recipes. I have the tuna and ogo shipped directly from Hawaii by freight and I pick it up myself at SFO in the mornings. … Quality of ingredients is not something that I am willing to compromise on in order [to] lower the price point.”
Why do you think poke has become a big trend?
“It’s fast, customizable, healthy, and affordable. It is a winning combination. Customers are able to get their sushi fix and get full for the price of one roll at a sit down restaurant.”
How do you handle food allergies?
“We have a lot of gluten free sauces, and that sets us apart from the traditional poke, where the tuna is marinated in this sauce with gluten for hours. I actually have a severe shellfish allergy, so I’m really on my servers to be careful about cross-contamination — I know that it’s really important.”
What’s your go-to order?
“2 scoops tuna, 2 scoops salmon, white onion, green onion, signature hot sauce, jalapenos, masago, hawaiian salt, all drizzled with spicy mayo.
It is a pretty simple order. The more simple it is, the more delicious!”