FreshFin Poké: Spreading the Popular Poké Trend Through the Midwest

poké
Photo by Eric Tadsen

Poké is the trending Hawaiian food that jumped to the mainland of the United States in the last few years and inspired the name and theme of FreshFin Poké, one of Madison’s new fast casual restaurants. The Hawaiian word poké is a two-syllable word, pronounced poh-kay, which simply means cut into chunks. Traditionally, islanders cut up the fresh catch of the day and toss it with sea salt, onions, and sesame seeds. Poké bowls first came to California, where the largest populations of native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live. It didn’t take long before poké restaurants exploded on the scene in cities across the country.

Diners at FreshFin Poké can customize their poké bowl, which features the highest-quality cuts of sashimi-grade seafood and alternative proteins for diners who prefer not to eat raw fish. Being able to select from poached shrimp, vegan options, and sous vide chicken (vacuum-sealed chicken breast cooked in its own juices) allows more people to enjoy the healthy, flavorful, and affordable quick bowls. A poké bowl consists of a protein served over a bowl of rice or greens, and diners select from a wide-array of toppings and add-in selections. Nutritional information is available at freshfinpoke.com so diners can make informed ingredient choices.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The Asian fusion Signature Bowls set the restaurant apart and cater to the Midwestern palate. The authentic, handcrafted sauces take the basic poké dish up a notch. Each bowl can be assembled relatively quickly, and the cost is between $9 and $12. A customer loyalty program—Earn a Bowl, Give a Bowl—provides a free poké bowl after purchasing 10 bowls, and takes it a step further by donating a poké bowl to Porchlight, their Madison community partner.

FreshFin Poké is owned and managed by Nate Arkush and Andrew Foster. Nate grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and has worked in restaurants since age 15. He received culinary training at the Austin Community College in Texas, and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an MBA from DePaul University in Chicago.

Across the country, Andrew grew up in Montana. For spending money, he also worked in the food industry during high school and college. “In high school, I biked to open a sandwich shop at 5:30 a.m. before going to classes,” he says. After receiving his engineering degree from Montana State University, he moved to Milwaukee to work for an engineering consulting company. After four years in Milwaukee, Andrew moved to Madison to complete the full-time MBA program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Nate discovered poké bowls on a visit to California, and found the popular dining concept met Americans’ growing demand for fresh globally influenced food. “Diners have grown comfortable eating sushi, so to discover a more affordable way to eat Asian-style raw fish seemed to be a food trend whose time had come. It gives you all the benefits of sushi, but it’s customizable and quicker than a sit-down sushi restaurant.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

After visiting many poké restaurants and drawing from the best across the United States, Nate developed his brand to stand above the rest. He had been working for 10 years at the Starwood Hotels and Sheraton Grand Hotel in Chicago, and felt the time was right to start his own poké restaurant. He had an entrepreneurial vision and wanted to grow his concept from scratch in the way he dreamed of doing it. His research showed that Milwaukee lacked a poké restaurant, so he moved there to start the first FreshFin Poké, opening it in January 2017. A few months later, he met Andrew, who was completing his MBA summer internship in downtown Milwaukee. Nate’s vision for the restaurant and growth plans clicked with Andrew, and they decided to partner to grow the new venture.

Nate and Andrew have what they call a five-five-five plan—five restaurants in five markets in five years. The popularity of poké bowls has helped them to open five restaurants in just 19 months. The ambitious plan is to be on the lookout for new site opportunities while being careful not to grow faster than they can manage. Since January 2017, they’ve opened four Milwaukee restaurants: Oakland; Third Ward; Corners of Brookfield; and the Milwaukee Bucks Fiserv Forum, which provides poké for Milwaukee Bucks games, concerts, and other arena events.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Because pro athletes want healthy, protein-packed, nutritious meals for fuel before the game, Nate and Andrew’s catering operation also provides healthy poké bowls to visiting Major League Baseball teams who come to town to play the Brewers. Catering is available at all locations. As Milwaukee’s first poké restaurant, FreshFin Poké received the OnMilwaukee Best New Restaurant award in 2017.

The Madison-based FreshFin Poké opened in September 2018 in the lobby of The James, a block of student apartments adjacent to UW–Madison. “The location has an excellent drive-by traffic count, which provides great visibility to University Avenue commuters crisscrossing the city from east to west each day,” says Andrew. “We wanted to be near State Street to reach a younger demographic, but in the end, chose the higher traffic visibility of University Avenue to draw people of all ages and help us get well-known throughout the city. Plus, the building has the vibe we were looking for. We don’t need much space for a fast casual restaurant, so the 27-foot ceilings and tall bank of windows facing University Avenue appealed to us. Tables and a beverage bar along the windows help people have an outdoor view in cooler or inclement weather. And in summer, we’ll have outdoor seating.”

These two entrepreneurs have a hardworking ethic and hands-on approach to operating FreshFin Poké. Likely, it won’t be long before they expand to a west side location or possibly open a spot at the planned Madison Public Market.

Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison location:

502 University Avenue

Milwaukee locations:

Oakland at 1806 E. North Avenue
Third Ward at 316 N. Milwaukee Street
Corners of Brookfield at 240 N. Lord Street
Milwaukee Bucks Fiserv Forum at 1111 Vel R. Phillips Avenue