Food by VICE

Serving Sushi-Grade Poke Won’t Make You Much Money

“It’s a third of the price to serve frozen tuna,” says Mainland Poke's Ari Kahan of his competitors. “For us, we don’t compromise like that. It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing.”

by Natalie B. Compton
Sep 6 2016, 8:00pm

All photos by the author.

Once upon a time (in, like, 2014), poke was something you could really only get in Hawaii. Lost souls walked the streets of big cities with only sushi and kale salads to eat—but both foods in the same bowl? It wasn't a readily available thing on the mainland.

Ari Kahan wanted to change that. With fond memories of poke-eating in Hawaii as a kid, the Los Angeles native had a vision to bring the concept across the Pacific. In April of 2015, he opened Mainland Poke in Beverly Grove, joining a few other early pioneers of the trend like Sweetfin Poké in Santa Monica, and Poke N Roll in Glendale.

Kahan's mission was to serve sushi-grade fish from day one_

Kahan's mission was to serve sushi-grade fish from day one. All photos by the author.

Before Mainland's doors opened, Kahan made a pilgrimage to Hawaii to study the poke craft at its source.

"I thought I might as well go eat my heart off. I went around three to four weeks, traveling around Hawaii, and ate at every poke shop on the island," Kahan said.

Poke shop owners took Kahan under their wings. He went on fishing trips and learned tricks of the trade from the masters of poke.

Mainland Poke_

Kahan hits up Los Angeles Fish Co regularly for his two poke shops.

"Everyone—unprompted—was incredibly awesome and friendly. That's part of being on the island. Everyone is good people."

When he returned to California, Kahan wanted to separate himself from the other players in the poke game who serve frozen fish. He'd focus his concept instead on serving sushi-grade seafood, even though it would mean sacrificing profits.

"If you ever see ahi that's an even grade of pink, that's how you can tell if it's frozen. Ask any of your poke places to serve you without sauce. It's an even grade of pink because the tuna was brown, and they oxidize the tuna—and that makes it that perfect level of pink—and they freeze it."

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"It's a third of the price to serve frozen tuna," he said. "Think about your food costs coming down about 15 percent. That's a huge difference just serving fresh versus frozen. For us, we don't compromise like that. It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing."

"Our pricing is just about in line with everybody else, but our costs are significantly higher. We make less money, it's the truth."

Kahan says the business doesn't take overfishing lightly, and buys responsibly sourced tuna for about $16 a pound even though $5 frozen options are out there. His expensive ethical choice is put on display at his newly opened second Mainland location in Glendale. The 1,200-square-foot space features a window into the walk-in freezer where fresh fish from the market gets broken down daily by staff like chef Zachary Lopez.

Chef Zachary Lopez breaks down a salmon in the Mainland Poke walk-in freezer.

It's an incredibly laborious task for a fast casual place. It's not just slicing the guts out and the skin off; Lopez spends time with tweezers pulling out bones and tiny flecks of unwanted fish bits before the meat gets diced and sent off to the public.

"Imagine if you could get a frozen fillet that's already cut for a third of the price," Kahan said.

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But Kahan obviously doesn't want to imagine Mainland going down that path, even if it would make the business more money.

"My personal sentiment is that it has to be of a quality that we eat and enjoy ourselves. If you don't believe that it's of quality you would personally want to eat, what are you doing with your life?" Kahan said.

For now, the brand will keep doing business as usual and continue opening at a sustainable rate. (Up next is a Marina del Ray location.) Kahan hopes that his personal sentiment will be honored years down the road as Mainland continues to grow.

"For us, our brand is quality."

"We're not looking for a quick cash-out. For us, our brand is quality. That's what we want to be about," he said. "I'll probably regret saying this in ten years, but if anybody bought us they'd probably lower the quality. They'd look at the cost and be like, 'I could save 20 percent off the bat.'"