The Poke Bowl Is a Sign of the Coming Fast-Casual Apocalypse

Will any of us survive?
July 5, 2017, 11:04am
Photo by Kirk K/Flickr CC License

Poke is a decades-old Hawaiian staple. The dish, raw fish lightly dressed in oil and seasoned with Japanese flavors like nori or sesame oil, began as a simple, low-cost snack for local fishermen. Today, it's been reborn as the "poke bowl," a fast-casual reinterpretation of a classic dish—as long as you call "putting it in a bowl and adding rice" a "reinterpretation."

The poke bowl is everywhere in urban Indonesia, where it is the latest in a rising culture of one-dish fast-casual eateries that seemingly come out of nowhere to take over you Instagram feed. What's fast-casual? It's an industry term for restaurants that marry the trendiness of high-end hipster joints with the speed and simplicity of the neighborhood food stall.

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It's Eggs Benedict on a Sunday. It's modern Chinese bao on a Friday night. It's hype food; Instagram dishes made for the hungry smartphone scroller. It's the culinary equivalent of the hot take, only it's often a year or two behind the West. And it's killing Asia's food scene.

"It's easier to open something that's easy to prepare, easy to sell, and on trendy," said Patrese Vito, a chef at Robuchon au Dôme in Macau's Grand Lisboa Hotel. "Quality comes second. But people who really have a passion for the industry will of course be annoyed by it."

Here's the problem: fast-casual eateries are often little more then carbon-copies of something someone ate once on a holiday overseas. Eatlah is a Singaporean salted egg chicken joint recast as a Jakarta hipster haunt. The Halal Boys is a New York food cart parked in South Jakarta. Nalu Bowls is a North Shore smoothie bowl blended in Bali. See a trend here?

"Locals tend to copy things rather than creating new stuff," said Respati Tamio, of the Jakarta Supper Club. "Most of these establishments are rarely inspired by the chef, as most Indonesians are more inclined to gravitate toward the familiarity of food."

So then why are fast-casual eateries so ubiquitous today? Because they are easy to get off the ground (most only focus on a single dish or a family of dishes) and they can be really profitable if you ride the trend just right. You don't even need to rent a physical location anymore. Plenty of fast-casuals exist only online, as popups, or in small kiosks at spots like Pasar Santa. Some, like Eatlah, are remarkably successful, while others vanish before they ever make it to that coveted GO-FOOD recommended list.

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The high turnover rate and focus on trendy, Instagram-able foods threatens to dilute Asia's food scene with eateries that are hot today and a 404 error tomorrow. When local consumers are unwilling to reward experimentation and local talent, there are few incentives for chefs to take a chance or open their own spot. And in the long run, that hurts us all.

One of the few fast-casuals to find a niche and hold on tight has been Burgreens, a vegetarian restaurant that recently expanded into a Jakarta chain. Burgreens makes health food in a city with few competing veggie alternatives. It also helps that they make vegetarian food that actually tastes good. Glenn Munthe, the co-owner, told me that cultivating a scene was key to riding out the boom-and-bust cycle of Jakarta's food trends.

"If you look toward the health food scene, it's completely made up of a small, tight-knit community," Glenn said. "Customers who come for the first time become recurring customers, then they become smart customers who invite their friends and educate them on the product."

Burgreens' success doesn't set the standard. But I'm also not saying that less successful fast-casuals aren't without their pluses too. The style of eatery has forced local diners to value experience and presentation over mere taste, a change that made everyone, from the smallest Instagram bakery to the chillest chain, to up their game.

"Because fast casuals provide the simplest of foods most people with an awareness of the culinary arts don't look for something filling, they eat in search of an experience," said Jessica Lin, of Jakarta's St. Ali.

And in a part of the world where a rising class of middle-income diners are just starting to search out new and popular dishes, more traditional chefs could learn a thing or two from fast-casuals' affordable approach to dining.

"We as chefs just need to stand on what we think is right, or even go make these kinds of 'fast-casuals' but do it better," Vito said.