UPDATE: A Pokeworks rep sent in a statement on Tuesday, which has been added to the story.
Pokeworks, the New York-based chain of raw fish bowl restaurants, has left Chicago, with its West Loop location papered up over this weekend. Eater has confirmed both the Loop and West Loop locations of Pokeworks are no longer. The company continues to operate more than 50 locations across the country. Chicago has been removed from the company’s list of cities with Pokeworks locations. The company quietly slid off Chicago’s radar, begging the question: is the poke trend over?
Poke, a dish of cubed raw fish, is a Hawaiian import that carries cultural importance. Hawaiians often note how mainlanders struggle with capturing what makes the dish special. With its presence at grocery stores, hotel restaurants, and at specialty stores, there are plenty of examples to support the idea that the mainland has co-opted the dish as a health food trend while stripping it of its integrity.
It began gaining popularity in Chicago in the form of sushi bowls served over rice when another poke chain, Aloha Poke Co, opened its first fast-casual restaurant in 2015. It drew long lunch lines at Chicago’s French Market, and later ownership opened in Revival Food Hall in the Loop. While Aloha Poke grew, other companies attempted to clone that success. Yet another Chicago poke company, FireFin Poke Shop, abruptly ceased all operations of its five restaurants at the same time in 2017. The small chain lasted just a year.
Pokeworks started around the same time as Aloha Poke, employing Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon as its celebrity face. Four years later, the company runs more than 50 locations across the country and Canada. The company listed another 26 locations as “coming soon” on its website. Last year, it announced a major expansion plan thanks to an injection of venture capital. Pokeworks opened its first Chicago location in 2017 in the Loop (79 W. Madison Street), and a West Loop location (1017 W. Lake Street) followed.
Pokeworks peer Aloha Poke, founded by suburban Chicago native Zach Friedlander (and later taken over by Levy Family Partners), stirred up nation-wide controversy after threatening restaurants with cease-and-desist letters, demanding owners — some of them native Hawaiians — drop references to “aloha” in their names. This was to protect Aloha Poke’s brand, ownership said. The threats were deemed culturally insensitive, as the word carries deep importance to native Hawaiians. There was a Chicago protest after thousands of angry social media posts were shared. After keeping a low profile since the 2018 outburst, Aloha Poke in October announced an expansion plan with intentions to open in new markets.
Still, Chicago has places to eat poke. Mini-chain Poke Poke has three locations in Chicago, and there are a handful of Asian restaurants, such as Asian Outpost in the South Loop and En Hakkore 2.0 in Wicker Park, that keep poke on its menus. Likewise, select Whole Foods locations house Poke Bowl Co.’s kiosks inside the grocery stores.
So has the poke bowl bubble burst in Chicago? A rep for Pokeworks sent in this statement:
“The difficult decision was made to close our Loop and West Loop locations effective Friday, November 1 and Friday, December 13 respectively. The closure of the Chicago stores is not an indication of the overall health of the brand or the importance of the Hawaiian-inspired cuisine’s impact on mainland communities nationwide. The closing will neither impact operations elsewhere, nor future growth plans for the region. Pokeworks currently has more than 50 locations across the nation and we are continuing to open new restaurants in communities across the country. We are grateful for the support of our Chicago community members and look forward to developing and growing our footprint in the region in the future.”