This is Nir Kahan, the co-owner of Hokey Poke. Growing up in Israel, Nir says that food was always a “main stage event” in his daily life. In Israeli culture, food is extremely important and there’s a huge focus on high-quality, locally sourced, fresh, seasonal ingredients in everything from street food to upscale restaurants. So although he didn’t come from a heavy culinary background, being raised in this environment gave him a unique appreciation for food and an interest in how dishes were created. However, it wasn’t until he traveled the world in his twenties and spent six months in Japan that he was introduced to the super high-quality ingredients of Japanese cuisine that he had never seen before. He was inspired by the focus that the Japanese people put on these ingredients, even more so than in Israel, and how devoted they were to the food creation process. It was a form of art that they took great care and pride in and it allowed Nir to value fresh fish and the authenticity of food creation in a way that he never had before. From that point on, although he wasn’t cooking in his own place, he was always working in kitchens and playing with food. So when poke started getting popular in New York in 2015/2016, everything infused in his head, leading to the creation of Hokey Poke- a restaurant that combines the fresh Hawaiian-style cuisine with super fine, high-quality Japanese ingredients and aggressive Middle Eastern flavors.
Nir moved to New York in 2009 when his first daughter was born. His then-wife had started an organic food company and they moved to the city to develop the brand and open a few locations. While she and her business partner were running the business, Nir was managing operations for Hummus Kitchen, a childhood friend’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. Hummus Kitchen allowed Nir to get experience in customer service, business logistics, operational skills and speaking with vendors. He worked there for one year and credits his time there for giving him the confidence to dive into the food industry in New York and run his own restaurant. After Hummus Kitchen though, he worked in finance for four years until he got the opportunity to work in food again. He was asked to be involved in The Picnic Basket (which he is no longer a part of) by a friend’s brother and bring Mediterranean influences to the New York lunch scene. However, once he saw the poke trend starting in New York, he knew he had to be a part of it. He got the owners of The Picnic Basket to turn their second location into a commissary kitchen so that he could open a poke shop in the empty space next to The Picnic Basket. And since he was so excited to start playing with the idea of fresh fish that could be more creative and flexible than sushi, he decided to leave The Picnic Basket and focus on this new business. Since Nir isn’t Hawaiian and poke has more aggressive flavors and bigger mix ins than traditional Japanese food, he started to bring in touches of his Israeli background, incorporating the bold flavors of sesame and chickpeas into his menu. After a few months of prep, Hokey Poke opened in February 2016.
Nir says that his mindset of mixing flavors and playing with cuisines as well as his insistence on always using the best ingredients that he can find led him to working with poke. He and his team try to locally source as much as possible, but they always find the freshest, most high-quality ingredients because they understand the importance of healthy food. He buys only sushi grade fish that typically only high-end sushi restaurants use and has a bunch of different vendors that he orders from to make sure that they’re always getting the highest quality available. Although this hurts his profitability because his costs are so high, as a father Nir strives to feed his daughter the best stuff that he can and that’s the same way he looks at what he feeds his customers. He wants to use the best ingredients because he wants customers to associate his business with a unique poke experience and to know that when they purchase his food, they’re eating healthy, in a friendly environment with friendly service. With so much competition between poke restaurants today (he estimates that there are about 80 in the area), he wants customers to remember the quality of the food but also their service. Nir says that the team he has now is the most amazing, fun, supportive and loving crew that he could ask for. They’ve become a little family and his top employees who have been with him for a while now know the operations so well that it’s allowed them to grow the business and expand the menu. He believes that half of having a unique menu is having an awesome team that can sell it and that’s what he has right now. And once those two things come together, it’s magic. Their service, along with the unique influences combined on their menu, has allowed them to differentiate themselves from their competition.
The most rewarding part of the business for Nir is when customers make an effort to give him a compliment about how amazing the food was. It’s something that truly brightens his day and that he never gets tired of hearing. And since the base of their customers are recurring clients, it’s even more rewarding to know that the food is consistently delicious and that they’re enjoying it so much that they’re coming back multiple times a week. On the flip side though, the rise of social media and online ordering platforms has been the most challenging part of the business for Nir. He sees the benefits of it- increasing their exposure and introducing them to new clients, helping them to book catering jobs with people who have never tried their food before, keeping them on their toes to always be at their best every moment the restaurant is open- but, being older, it’s a little more difficult for him to understand the social media platforms and utilize them for sales. However, he understands that walk-in customers are no longer the business and that you have to bring people in with your online presence so he’s trying to adjust. But the fact that anyone can be a food critic now means that he or she can destroy your hard work over one experience. The change in the way the public interacts with food has shifted what customers expect from food service. He finds that people care less about the food itself and more about the convenience and fitting it into their schedule, which has caused Nir to constantly be apologizing for issues that he usually has no control over and losing money because of it. But, because so many customers rely on sites like Yelp and Grubhub, it’s better for him to lose the money than get a bad review on a platform that he has no control over. People take these platforms seriously so he has to as well or else his rating will drop and then “you’re fighting the statistics” as customers choose between you and thousands of other restaurants. Because your online presence is so powerful, Nir says that he’s gotten used to using these platforms as a marketing tool and if an issue does come up, “killing any complaint with kindness”.
For Nir, one Hokey Poke location is challenging but not enough so he’s thinking about franchising in order to expand into more locations. He says that it’s definitely scary because the industry is super risky to begin with and on top of that, it’s way more difficult to succeed in NYC than in other cities. But he believes that they have a really good product that customers enjoy. Also, he recently started a new business called The Chick Shop, which has become his new “baby” and is starting to pick up traction. As much as he loves Hokey Poke, he sees The Chick Shop as an extension of himself because it’s the food that he grew up eating but couldn’t find the quality that he appreciated in New York, so he decided to create it himself. Because of this new venture, Nir’s business partner, Shay, has taken over the main operations for Hokey Poke but Nir still runs all the back office duties. But as they go through this transition, Nir’s focus is continuing to provide the friendly service and high quality-food that Hokey Poke has always been know for. He says that when people come into the restaurant and meet their team in person, it creates a longer lasting relationship because they can see how hard they work to make every customer happy. And the satisfaction of customers will always be their main priority. As Nir says, “that’s the reason we’re here, you know?”
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