“I just want to make eating fun again!” says Founding Partner Billy Snur, bouncing around the just-opened location of Poke Rainbow in Redondo Beach, California. He rearranges brightly colored packages of Japanese candy on a nearby shelf. “When it gets too serious… I never want that to happen.”
Owner, Chef, and Entrepreneur Leo Wang joins us from his original shop in Van Nuys, which has grown a dedicated following in the three years since opening. “We are making fresh, fast, and healthy,” Leo emphasizes, “with a focus on great service.”
These longtime friends and business partners sat down with us to talk about pursuing the perfect fish, why they look up to Costco, and how poke mistakenly became a summer food in the United States.
How did you two meet and get involved in poke?
Leo: I worked as a sushi chef where I learned all my skills; breaking down a fish, making sauces, all that. Later, when I worked at a commercial company for product and packaging, that’s when I met Billy – and we connected over our interests in cooking and investing.
Billy: After work, we’d go out to restaurants and talk about food, business, and opening a restaurant together one day. Our key concept was something fresh, fast, and healthy.
Leo: Back then I was overweight; my doctor was saying I really needed to watch my cholesterol. The problem was, I was so busy! I’d look around and my choices for a quick healthy meal were either Chipotle or Panera and, you know, that gets boring. When I visited Hawaii I loved poke there, and then when poke started showing up in LA I thought hey, I can do that too! I’m a sushi chef! Billy and I were brainstorming and he designed the logo that we have now, and suddenly it was like, Billy, this is great! We can do this!
Is Poke Rainbow your first restaurant and first franchise?
Leo: Yes. There’s a lot of room in the restaurant industry here still, and poke is great in terms of investing since there’s much less buildout for a restaurant space. There’s nothing to cook, so you don’t need a full kitchen or back of house staff.
Billy: The starting cost is about half of what a restaurant is, and we can save that money and use it to give the customer what they want. I always knew that I was going to be Leo’s first franchise owner. I waited for two years for something to open up on this street [Catalina Blvd, Redondo], because location is everything.
How has poke in LA or California changed, if at all, since opening? How have you adapted your business?
Billy: The way we eat is definitely changing. When I first opened up, I thought I’d get young, hip people like in their 20’s and 30’s and that would be it. But no! I’ve had five year olds all the way up to senior citizens, and everyone loves poke; every nationality. It’s a broad range, and they all have one thing in common; they want to eat healthy.
Leo: But also casual, and fast. My daughter loves poke but doesn’t want to stay here in the restaurant to eat it, so we’ll drive here after school and pick up poke and go home.
Billy: Poke is increasing and has been since 2016, but there has been kind of a shakeup since not everyone can manage and run a poke shop. If you don’t have a lot of customers, your fish is going to go bad. Or you have to marinate it, and it won’t taste as good. So the way we do our poke, it’s sushi grade fish, and our customers understand the difference. We also focus on customer service. We are open longer hours, we over-scoop, we keep everything clean. We’ve pulled customers from other poke shops and they say, wow, you guys are the best.
Leo: When we over-scoop, it’s the same as the Costco model; you give more without pricing higher. Customers love it and come back. If you can not only satisfy your customers but delight them, business will be easy.
Billy: It’s a lower margin, but it’s about the customer. Leo and I would rather sell to more customers, take slimmer margins ,and have higher quality food. Fish is our number one expense; more than salary, more than all our other ingredients – and that’s how we’d want it.
What goes into making “the best poke in LA”, as quoted by many of your reviewers?
Leo: I can’t give out too many secrets but when choosing a distributor, I tasted every kind of ingredient; every fish, even tried tamago (Japanese omelette) like five times from all these places and ended up going with two Japanese distributors. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best ingredients and that’s what I care about.
Billy: Also, Leo is in charge of training our staff about the certain way to break down fish. He trained his staff and they came down [to the Redondo location] when we opened and showed us, so the training stays consistent. Leo is passing on sushi skills that sushi chefs just don’t give out. We also watch for things like what not to serve, like if a fish is falling apart or minced too small. Our fish are big, beautifully cut chunks that aren’t lukewarm.
Would you say this is Hawaiian poke, or more like sushi in a bowl?
Leo: Hawaiian poke is marinated, and this is kind of like fusion between the best parts of Hawaiian poke and Japanese sushi to cater to what we like here in the US. With marinating, it’s harder to control the salt in the fish and therefore harder to control your salt intake. How we do it, you have options for how much sauce or salt you want to add. And it makes sense for Hawaiian roots to marinate, since salt helps preserve fish longer in tropical heat, but we don’t need that here.
Billy: Hawaiian poke usually has a taro base that is a much different texture, almost slimy, but again you do that because it preserves longer, which we don’t have to do here. Having fresh, warm rice and cold fish on top that’s sushi grade – everyone loves that.
We will also bake or broil our fish on request, which is something that other poke shops don’t do. It adds maybe 6 or 8 minutes, but customers love it because they can get salmon over brown rice for the price of a poke bowl, or you get customers who just want a huge serving of sushi over rice for the same price point, so it’s great both ways. There are a lot of things we can do differently with fusion.
You were telling me earlier that poke should traditionally be a winter food. How do your ingredients change throughout the seasons?
Billy: In the Japanese holiday season, sushi is the party food for winter events and New Years. They believe that fish is better when the water is cold–it’s fatter, it’s oilier, and it’s better tasting in the winter. So sushi sells more in the cold months there, but here in America poke is seen as a very summery, healthy food. I try to teach my customers about that and invite them to come back in the winter to experience the difference.
There are also other ways I try to educate my customers about Japanese culture. Many people will try umeboshi (salted plum) for the first time here or different types of furikake (seaweed seasoning), and it keeps things interesting, and it also differentiates Poke Rainbow from the crowd. We were thinking about how this winter, we might introduce something like a chowder or bouillabaisse. It’s another way we can do something different than other poke shops, but make food that American customers would still crave.
Leo and I both enjoy cooking and creating menus, and we are constantly keeping a little bar space open for a few new ingredients. The possibility for poke is endless!
Van Nuys: 15355 Sherman Way, Unit R, Van Nuys CA 91406
Redondo Beach: 1811A South Catalina Blvd. Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Images by Patrick Manalo (@patrickinla)