Executive Chat with Rebecca Patt, SVP Development Wray Executive Search
Featuring Steve Heeley, CEO of Pokeworks
Steve Heeley is CEO of Pokeworks, the world’s largest and leading fast-casual, premium poke brand. Founded in NYC in 2015, the brand currently has 68 locations and growing. Pokeworks’ menu features poke bowls, burritos, salads, and sides, with a commitment to sustainably sourced seafood and environmental responsibility. Heeley joined the brand in March 2021.
How did the Pokeworks concept get started?
It started with one small restaurant in New York City in 2015. The eight co-founders are all smart, intelligent, successful, entrepreneurial guys. Two sets of founders are brothers. They loved experiencing poke in Hawaii. They have the vision to make poke accessible and super high quality. They developed what we call Poke Your Way, which is where you can create your own poke bowl how you like to eat. They opened the first location in midtown Manhattan. Like most restaurants, it kind of started of slow, and then the brand was featured an article in Forbes magazine, and it just took off, creating huge buzz lines and lines around the block. That was when they knew they were had found something awesome, and it took off from there.
How did you get involved?
I met one of the founders Mike Chen through somebody that I knew. I was helping to connect Mike with somebody in the digital marketing world. We started talking and got to know each other and just hit it off. We had some shared ethos. As the conversation went along, and I spent more time with Mike, I got more involved, and he asked me to join the company. As I learned more about it, I saw it was a tremendous opportunity, so I was thrilled to join and have the opportunity to lead the team.
What are some of the projects you’ve been working on there that you’re most excited about?
We’ve really built a built a very strong leadership team to propel the brand in the future and better support all our franchisees. We spent a lot of this last year really building up our digital infrastructure. We did a complete top-to-bottom initiative on our digital infrastructure, everything from website and mobile app to new online ordering, new loyalty, new gift card program, everything. We really leaned into the opportunities of digital sales. That’s yielded some great results, and I’m very excited about that. And then we have several initiatives around growth including growing our store base. We went international this year. We have stores in Mexico, Taiwan, and we signed a 50-store development agreement for Canada. We’re leaning into the virtual kitchen space. We already have a handful of successful virtual kitchens. We’re going to look at that as a potential opportunity and just continue to build on our strengths as the leading poke brand. It’s been a great year and we are continuing to build momentum around opening new stores and helping our franchisees grow their business proactively.
We hear a lot these days about how restaurants and everybody is dealing with inflation and supply chain issues. How have you found that has affected Pokeworks?
It’s affected us just like other brands. We’ve really leaned into our supply chain to leverage our supply chain with the number of stores we have, to buy better and more efficiently, and on behalf of all our franchise owners, we’ll continue to do that. Like a lot of concepts, we took prices up this year. We really had to because of the inflation for us, particularly in core commodities like fresh seafood. We saw quite an escalation in us there. We’re also looking in terms of menu innovation, for ways to give the consumer value that also provide good margins for us. Our current LTO is a bowl we call the bang bang chicken bowl. The core protein is chicken which is less expensive than seafood. We sell it for less and still make a good margin. There are a group of consumers out there that don’t eat raw seafood. It appeals to those consumers and at the same time it allows us to maintain good margins.
What kind of franchisees do you look for?
Number one, we look for franchisees that are passionate about our brand and are good fit for us in terms of core values. We like franchisees that are involved in the business and aren’t absentee franchisees. We like franchisees that are hands on and really involved with their restaurants. We’re fortunate we have a very strong group of franchise owners. I think that the founders did a great job in choosing franchise owners that were a good fit for the brand and have a commitment to our core values and our quality. I think the one thing that truly separates Pokeworks from a lot of our competition is our quality is uncompromising. We have a super high-quality product. We like to work with franchise owners who have that pride of brand and can execute that.
What is the company culture like?
We have a set of core values. They are really guiding principles that drive everything that we do as a team, how we make decisions, how we choose our team, how we act and behave, and how we select franchisees. Our core values are important to us and a thread that goes through everything that we do. It’s something that we talk about and engage with daily. I think that it has allowed us to build an incredible team of people who have this common purpose and are able to work with likeminded people. It’s been powerful for us.
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