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From Hawaii to the Heartland: Poke’s journey from local favorite to food craze to national staple

First, poke was a Hawaiian favorite. Then the raw-fish dish journeyed to the heartland and everywhere else around the nation, quickly and dramatically. Lately, its trajectory has flattened, but poke has hardly vanished. It’s transformed from food craze to staple of the American dining canon. Poke, quite rapidly, has matured into a part of nearly every major American city’s local food scene — in the company of tacos, dim sum and Tex-Mex on the hierarchy of our contemporary, cosmopolitan menu.

Using Yelp’s data, we can reconstruct every step of poke’s evolution. Our reviews and photos show when and where “poke” started showing up (the first mentions can be found in a review and photo of a poke business in Honolulu, Ono Seafood). And visits to businesses’ Yelp pages show what proportion of our users’ cumulative browsing of restaurants and food sellers was devoted to poke — its mouth share, as we call it. As tastes, diets and ingredient availability change, cuisines rise and fall. But in our data, no cuisine has had quite the rapid rise in mouth share as poke’s — tripling in barely a year from the start of 2016. When compared to the growth of ramen, another cuisine that grew rapidly, poke had five times ramen’s growth rate.

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We’re sharing poke’s remarkable story alongside our quarterly look at the nation’s local economic outlook. We measure the strength of 50 urban economies by the growth in the local business population. And it’s in categories such as poke that entrepreneurs, sensing opportunity, fuel local economies by opening business doors. Poke’s nationwide mouth share has flattened out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean existing supply is meeting demand. Poke entrepreneurs are betting against it: The number of open poke businesses in the U.S. has been increasing by about 300 each quarter, at an annual rate of 61 percent. However, in some early poke outposts, such as Honolulu and Los Angeles, poke growth has slowed dramatically.

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When Yelp began connecting people with great local businesses, poke and otherwise, in 2004, poke remained largely rooted to Hawaii, its home since its birth in the Pacific Islands centuries before.

Among the first poke reviewers were Hawaiians appreciating a local cuisine; others were visitors to the islands marveling at the the combination of flavors: fresh catches of ahi tuna, seaweed, nuts, and soy sauce or another source of salt.
Then poke went national. Starting with the West and moving east, cities across the country got access to their own local version of the dish. In 2012, poke was barely a blip on the mainland. It’s a recent arrival in some cities, including Kansas City, Mo., and still hasn’t reached a handful of states.

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Poke’s expansion was the product of decisions by many risk-taking men and women, not the result of one giant business’s strategy. Chains are small in poke; the biggest, Tokyo Joe’s, has just 40 locations.

As poke spread, its definition grew to encompass a wider variety of food. This was reflected in Yelp reviews for poke, which started to include more ingredients. However, the staples, as reflected in Yelp reviews, remain largely unchanged: rice and fish.

As poke and its customers changed, one thing remained constant: People who eat poke like poke. Poke businesses’ Yelp ratings consistently have averaged above 4 out of 5 stars, far higher than the typical rating for the most popular savory cuisines (desserts make Yelpers generous with their stars). Americans’ desire for poke is no longer growing. But their love of poke is as strong as ever.

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