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Behind The Dream: Westcoast Poke In Vancouver

Co-founder of Westcoast Poke, Zachary Cho
Photography: Issabelle Frial

Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.

Over the last few years, it seems like everywhere we turn, there is a new poke spot popping up all over the city. Co-founders Zachary Cho, Connor McNamee, Anton Lohvin, and Hikaru Ogawa can proudly say that they were part of the foundation of the poke craze that began in Vancouver by being the third poke restaurant that opened up in the city. Since the opening of their first Vancouver location in November 2016, they have since opened up a second location in Steveston. 

We sat down with Zach, one of the co-founders, to learn more about his background and how Westcoast Poke came to be.

Where did you grow up? How did you end up in Vancouver?
I’m actually born and raised in Vancouver. But, I’m half Korean. On my Korean side, my grandfather is from South Korea and my grandmother is from North Korea and they actually met in Denmark. He was a scientist and she was a nurse, and that’s how they met of all places. Then they moved to Ottawa and eventually Vancouver.

How did you get started with Westcoast Poke?
I used to own and run an event company with my best friend Connor from high school, but it was always the dream of ours to open up a restaurant together. I also did outside sales for two years and what I found was that being on the road so much, there wasn’t much time for lunch and the typical options were fast food. So in November 2015, I was reading a magazine and in the bottom right corner of the left page, there was this little article that read “Poke Craze in LA”. I had never heard of poke before. Literally, right after reading that article, I called Connor, explained what poke was, told him it was blowing up in LA, and asked him what he thought. I said “I think it will do well here [in Vancouver]” and he said “I think it would too.” On that same phone call, I asked him if he wanted to do it [open up a restaurant], he said “yes, let’s do it”, and that was that. That following February 2016, I flew down to LA, ate at 10-12 different poke shops, did my research, studied the different menu offerings, how they mixed it, then came back home and we opened our doors in November 2016. 

What do you love most about Vancouver?
I feel like everyone’s going to give this answer… but the mountains, beaches, forests. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, there’s always something to appreciate. Also, the sunsets here! I’ll be driving across the Lion’s Gate Bridge and there’ll be this amazing sunset, and I’ll just be in awe that I live in this city.

What is the biggest struggle about owning a business in Vancouver?
Awareness. There’s still so many untapped markets and customers and it’s just figuring out a way to reach out to them. 

Has it always been your dream to own your own business?
Absolutely. Like I mentioned, Connor and I owned an events company prior to this and it was called FAM & Co. – Food, Art, Music. We would host different events where we’d bring in local chefs and feature 5-course meals, we’d have live paintings, tattoo stations, and we’d do stuff for charity. But owning a restaurant was always the end goal. 

Now that I’ve gotten to this point, I don’t want anything but to own my own business moving forward. The freedom is amazing. I mean, with that being said, you definitely get a lot more stress, but I love being able to build something, brand something, and getting people through the doors, and hearing the reception from guests. 

What are some of your recent successes?
We’ve won a few awards now. We won 1st place Poke in Richmond 2 years in a row now, and 3rd place in Georgia Strait’s Best of the Best Awards this year. Those have been amazing. 

The awards speak for themselves, but on a more corporate note, we’ve had people reach out to us wanting to franchise. The fact that someone has eaten here, loved the product, and is interested in investing their money into something we started… that’s the biggest compliment we can get!

What are you most proud of about Westcoast Poke?
There are a few things.

Something that has always set us apart from other poke spots is the quality of our products – freshly made products, in-house made sauces, stuff like that. But also, we always stayed on top and were aware of where food trends were going and keeping allergens in mind. We want to be inclusive to everyone, so we offer purely gluten free soy sauce, and we have vegetarian and vegan options. That’s something that’s super important to us. 

Also, creating a close-knit family working environment. We have a lot of young staff members here where this is their first job. We want to be able to give them this opportunity to mentor them so that they can grow, learn, and gain valuable experience. It’s also so great to see how close our staff is. We always see them making plans for the weekend and stuff like that, which is really great to see.

What is your favourite item from your menu?
If we’re talking one single product, then the Burnt Miso Chili – it’s so good and I can put it on anything. I’ll take some leftovers home and put it on my pizza and pasta. It’s definitely my favourite thing. 

What dish would you recommend if you’re a first time customer at Westcoast Poke?
I’d have to say either the Coast Bowl, Spirit Bowl, or Smoke Bowl.

Who are some of your favorite businesses in Vancouver?
I live right by Savio Volpe, so I’m always there. But my ideal Saturday is walking around Granville Island and heading to Granville Island Market, looking at everything, finding ingredients, picking this, picking that, and then grabbing a couple bottles of wine from there, and cooking a delicious meal at home. 

Any advice for others out there who’d like to start their own business?
Take your time. Do your research ahead of time. Don’t jump right into it. Learn about food costs, labour costs, everything you can ahead of time. Be organized. And really, really, really, think it through.

Want to know more? Check out and bookmark  Westcoast Poke on Yelp and follow along on social media at @westcoastpoke!

From L-R: Spirit Bowl, Smoke Bowl, Coast Bowl
Photography: Issabelle Frial