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Just Poké

Poké with a conscious

The world can be a difficult place. When someone does something right, it gives you hope. Because change often starts incrementally. Just Poké is one of those stories. It starts with two boys who met in grade school and became best friends.

Norman Wu's family moved to Mercer Island when he was in the 4th grade. Danny Brawer was born and raised on Mercer Island. They met and it was a done deal. "We became best friends," says Norman. "In high school, we came up with random entrepreneurial ideas. Before it was popular, we were talking about self-serve frozen yogurt, but who was going to listen to a couple of high school kids who probably didn't have the ability to make it happen? We developed a couple of apps. Neither of us had a profession in mind, like becoming a doctor. We both wanted to be entrepreneurs. I got my Business degree from the UW, and Danny got an Economics and PolySci degree from UC Davis. I landed a job with a financial services firm, and Danny went with a recruiting company, Outsource. I became an account manager with a firm in Bellevue. Both of us were headhunters. He started here, but was promoted to a job in L.A. I ended up working in L.A., too."

Always thinking, they decided to approach the CEO of Outsource about an idea they had. Outsource recruited people making $60k and over. "We suggested they use their same client list but start recruiting C-suite and director-level positions. The CEO said he'd invest if we got it up and running. Our first year, we had nearly $10 million in sales. He was blown away. We were a little surprised, too." However, the decision was made not to continue with the program. "We were young, wanted to push hard, and had lots of energy. It was clear we didn't have the same long-term vision. Our offshoot of the business got bought out and we sold our stake."

Not ones to laze about, Danny and Norman were living in the South Bay, were 25 years old, and had some money to play with. They started looking for the next thing. "I saw a return to Seattle; I missed the trees, water, and mountains. We watched the growing poké craze in L.A. in 2015. There was a shop every few blocks. We'd never seen a concept grow so quickly. We researched and found there was one poké shop at a convenience store in Seattle. We thought Bellevue had the right demographic and decided we'd do it. We found a place on 106th downtown but had to convince the landlord. We were young, had never run a restaurant, and it was new concept. After we addressed all his concerns, he signed a lease with us in June 2016. We think a lot of it was that he appreciated that we were locals."

Rainbow Roll Bowl

They were ready to put everything they had into it - money and hard work. The one thing they hadn't realized was how long it would take to get permits. "With a construction boom going on, we found out it would take six months before we could even start." Did they sit back and wait? No, they doubled down and found a second location. "We had both seen a 'For Lease' sign on a sandwich shop in Kirkland. It would be an easy move-in with a quick remodel. Again, we had to convince the landlord - after all, we already had a first location that we hadn't even opened. We signed the lease September 1, 2016, and opened October 2. We cleaned and painted it ourselves. We'd spent most of our capital on the first location. It was the first poké shop opened around here. We agreed we'd work seven days a week with no break, which I do and don't recommend. We'd start at 8 am, close at 10 p.m., then go home and do the other aspects of running the business. We knew we needed to learn every aspect of the business - accounting, marketing, distributing. People took to it. Kirkland is a similar demographic to Bellevue, so that gave us confidence. A lot of people in the area had had poké when they'd traveled to Hawaii or California, so we didn't have to do much marketing. It was a slow burn. The first six months, we spent a lot of time in the shop."

They thought Bellevue would open in February or March of 2017, but it wasn't until July that they opened their doors. "We had Kirkland dialed in. But on Day 1 in Bellevue, we had 400 people in a non-stop line for five hours. It was like that for the first three months. It was the craziest thing we'd ever seen. We had to change how we operated because in Kirkland we'd serve 300-400 people a day. In Bellevue, we served 400 people at lunch."

For three years, they took no salaries and reinvested the profits into the business. "Our parents were supportive, although in the beginning there was a hearty amount of skepticism. We'd left jobs where we'd made multi-six-figure salaries. We showed them our reasons, and they were behind us." Norman's dad had moved from China to the U.S. with $50 in his pocket. He was frugal and valued stability, staying at the same job for 30 years. "He had an entrepreneurial streak, but had married and had a family at a young age and needed to provide for them. Because he hadn't been able to try things, he encouraged me and told me as long as I was happy, I should be comfortable in taking big risks."

Torched Eel Donburi Bowl

2018 was a big year for Just Poké. Their third location, Factoria Mall, opened in February 2018; it did well. "Other poké places were opening; it was becoming an arms race. We opened in Redmond Town Center in May, Gilman Village in Issaquah in August, Renton Landing in November. Downtown Seattle and Bellevue were crowded with national companies. We concentrated outside those areas. We opened in Fremont in August 2019."

Photos courtesy of Just Poke

Connie Adams/June 2022

Stay tuned for part 2 of this story in our July issue

Just Poké: justPoké.com

Sugo Hand Roll Bar: sugohandroll.com

Matcha Magic: www.itsmatchamagic.com


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