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Conscious Hospitality Group

Where the brands live

Last month we shared the story of how Norman Wu and Danny Brawer started Just Poké in Western Washington, and the growth they experienced. This month, we'll look at franchising and new brands that have been added under Conscious Hospitality Group, as well as why they have been so successful.

By the end of 2018, Norman and Danny started franchising Just Poké. "We'd been approached about franchising from the beginning, but we kept saying 'we're not ready'. We wanted to thoroughly understand every aspect of the business. A gym owner in Bellingham really wanted a franchise because he loved the brand. Eventually, he was our first franchisee, opening in 2019 in downtown Bellingham. By the end of 2022, we'll have 24 locations, 19 of those will be franchisees."


Their entire business is based on the idea of eating clean, being responsible citizens of the planet, and treating employees right. "We care about this business, not just the bottom line," says Norman. "We have core values we won't move from. Everything in the store is compostable, we use low VOC paint, and reclaimed wood. Our suppliers are MSC certified and use sustainable practices. Certification is a difficult thing, and you have to seriously vet your suppliers. Our tuna is wild. We've visited our tuna supplier in Hawaii. We've visited salmon farms for our Atlantic salmon, which you can't get wild because it's been over-fished. We get Atlantic salmon from British Columbia which has very tight controls, Norway/Sweden, and New Zealand which has the strictest guidelines."

In the beginning, they didn't do a good job of marketing why Just Poké was different from other poké places. "We didn't tell people we paid more for our fish because it's the best sashimi grade fish on the market. That's been our business concept from the beginning. We know that if someone has one bad experience, they won't return. People in this area are educated. They know what good fish tastes and smells like. We get produce that's locally sourced, and we use onions from Walla Walla. Most produce we get is technically organic, but not certified because of the expense. Some of our seaweed comes from Monterey Bay farms. The seaweed we use for seaweed salad comes from Japan. For the past few years, we've pushed more information out there so people know what they're getting from us."

When it comes to approving franchise partners, Danny and Norman are picky about who they will work with. "If they're just looking to maximize dollars, they should look elsewhere. They have to have the same core values we have. They have to use the same supply networks we do. They have to treat employees the same way we do. This is very important to us. We pay 20% above the industry average, plus offer education and training. Skills can be trained; we look for personality and attitude. We cap our managers at 45 hours a week and make them take two days off in a row. Work schedules are published ahead of time so people can make plans. So there are easier franchises to buy. But if they agree with our values, we'll put all our effort behind them. All of our stores are successful and profitable. Most franchisees have 2-3 store locations."

Hawaiian Classic with ahi tuna

Pandemic distress hit Just Poké like everyone else. "We didn't let anyone go at first. And even though my dad's family is in Wuhan and they were saying how serious it was, we kept thinking "a month or two…" so we didn't let anyone go. But even if you're closed, you have to pay rent. Our own perspective was that others were suffering more than us, so we kept the lights on by starting online orders In May 2020, with delivery through Uber Eats and Door Dash. It kept us going and by summer we were breaking even. My dad taught me that sometimes the best opportunities come out of the worst situations. By the fall of 2020, Danny and I decided to look at opportunities for our business and be aggressive in finding more spaces and opening other brands."

Just Poké is fast casual. Their new brand, Sugo Hand Roll Bar, opened on Western Avenue in Seattle, near Pike Place Market. They consider this a blend of fine casual/fine dining. They now have locations in downtown Bellevue and Kirkland Urban. They have an açaí bar in T-Mobile park as well as in some Just Poké locations, as well as in two Clubhouse locations and the main concourse at Climate Pledge Arena. "We'd like to get a Sugo in a Clubhouse as well," says Norman.

Rachel Barnecut, Norman's fiancée and a fifth-generation West Seattle-ite, has opened her first plant-forward matcha bar, Matcha Magic in Old Bellevue. They offer traditional ceremonial matcha, lattes, tonics, potions, and espresso. You can also get boosters and adaptogens to add to the lattes for more benefits (boosting immune systems, adding collagen, reducing inflammation). Food items include açaí bowls and toasts. She donates 5% of sales to Ladies Who Launch!, a non-profit that assists the global community of women and non-binary entrepreneurs. Rachel is backed by Conscious Hospitality Group, the umbrella under which Norman and Danny's brands reside. All brands under the umbrella are built around the ethos of Just Poké. A portion of Just Poké sales goes to Oceana, an ocean conservancy group. Conscious Hospitality Group now has a Head of Culture who creates diversity in all stores. She started as the Renton store manager and has been with the company four years.

Just Poké's event food truck took a hit when the pandemic arrived and there were no more events. The owner of Homegrown has a burger place on Mercer Island called Hap's and is a friend of theirs. He let them park the truck there in late summer 2020 and they've been successful. Now the islanders are demanding a brick and mortar, so that is in the works. Hopefully the truck will find new spots to appear in the future. Two weddings are already booked.

"We plan to open more concepts ourselves," explains Norman. "But we also want to help others as a growth incubator, partnering with people who have matching values, to accelerate their growth."

Connie Adams/July 2022

Read the Just Poké story, part 1, here

Just Poké:

Sugo Hand Roll Bar:

Matcha Magic:

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