This is Jacob Ryvkin, the co-owner of Let’s Poke, a restaurant that he started with his business partner, Alex, who he’s been friends with since high school. Alex handles the back-end operations of the business and Jacob handles the restaurant itself (the management, the menu creation, and the daily operations), since he he began working in restaurants when he was just fifteen years old. Jacob grew up in New York and comes from an immigrant family. His parents were musicians in restaurants so he grew up very familiar with the restaurant lifestyle and always had a love for food. He was independent from a young age and wanted to make money, so it felt natural for him to seek work in the restaurant industry. He started out busing tables and then waiting tables, doing various jobs in different restaurants throughout high school and college. And although he ended up getting a degree in business management and finance and worked a few corporate jobs in finance and real estate, he always found himself getting bored and unhappy with the work. He was constantly drawn back into food and restaurants and eventually realized that his “fall back option” had turned into his passion. Now Jacob uses his 20+ years of experience in catering and fine dining to provide restaurant-quality, high-end, ingredient-driven food to his customers in Let’s Poke’s fast casual setting.
Once Jacob realized how happy he was working in the food industry, he started educating himself on the different aspects of each restaurant’s operations: front of house, back of house, kitchen, bar, and as he worked his way up the chain of command, his love for the industry grew. By the time he was twenty-four, he was managing Rasputin, a night club in Brooklyn, NY, where he was running a crew of 100 people with full banquet service, a band and cabaret and doing over $10 million in sales a year. Jacob eventually left Rasputin and worked at a few different banquet halls and night clubs before deciding to put his experience to the test and branch out on his own. He was on the West Coast scouting spaces to open a new night life concept when he was introduced to poke. Being someone who eats a ton of sushi, he found that a lot of the great sushi flavor was offered in poke, while also being a healthy, filling meal that’s more unique and complex than a salad. He immediately started playing with the poke concept in his head and when he returned to New York, he began doing research into the poke spots that had begun popping up at that time. He thought he could do a lot with the poke concept and was so excited about executing it that he and Alex decided to steer away from night life environment and put their project on hold to pursue this fast casual idea. They began brainstorming and planning a little over a year and a half ago and officially opened Let’s Poke in April 2018.
Since Let’s Poke is such a new business, Jacob says that it’s been challenging to spread awareness about the business itself, especially since a lot of poke places have opened recently and every one of them is on social media. The New York market is so saturated to begin with, it’s hard to gain recognition, even if your current customers love what you’re doing. However, he knows that they have an excellent product due to versatility of their menu items (there’s over 6,000 ways the customer can customize their bowl or burrito) and the chef-driven ingredients that they offer. All of their sauces are made from scratch and most of the items that they serve are also made in-house. They use premium grade fish and have chicken and beef available as alternative protein options. They also offer a lot of high-end sushi ingredients as toppings for the poke that other restaurants don’t have, such as tamago, crispy salmon skins and ikura. However, the most unique thing about Let’s Poke is that they’ve also adapted the poke concept to fit New York’s fast paced environment with their self-ordering kiosks. Jacob recognized that since not everyone in New York is familiar with poke, walking into a poke restaurant can be daunting. The customer may not only be confused by the vast variety of items themselves, a line set up where they’re talking to multiple different people while trying to place an order as well as ask questions about the items can make it even more confusing and can quickly turn the ordering process into a frustrating experience, for both the customer and the staff. So they removed the confusion and made the process more efficient with self-ordering kisosks, where the customer is shown the menu in a step-by-step guided motion with pictures of each item and a brief description (if needed). Not only is this less confusing and more efficient (cutting down on order time by up to three or four minutes), it also eliminates 90% of errors that come up during an order. Jacob admits that errors still do happen, someone may misread a ticket or forget an ingredient, but at least they know the error is on their end as the customer has taken the time to select exactly what they wanted for their meal. Their ability to provide authentic flavor while making the ordering process so customizable with unique menu elements is something other poke vendors simply don’t offer.
Although they’ve only been operating Let’s Poke for about nine months, Jacob is focused on creating more buzz for the business by scaling out into more catering and events and eventually creating more brick and mortar locations. Because he and his team try to go the extra mile with food preparation, he feels strongly that they have restaurant-standard food that they’re able to provide to customers in the same time frame and for the same price point as you would expect to get at a fast casual place. And he hopes that their commitment to quality is reflected in each customer’s experience. For him, the best part of running a food business is the diverse group of people that you meet and the fact that you can have such a personal experience with each one of them. However, his advice for other entrepreneurs in the food industry is to really love the business and to research and understand the amount of time and energy that you need to contribute to produce a successful business. Although food has been very fulfilling for him and he loves interacting with customers, hearing their feedback and introducing new customers to poke, he recognizes that it’s very complex and stressful industry. So he advises everyone from the business owner to the bus boy in a restaurant to truly love what they’re doing because “unless you have love for the game, this business is for the insane”.
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