When Trisha Fortuna and her husband, Jason McVearry, first opened their Poke-Poke window, they had no idea the impact it would have.
By Cy White, Photo by Victoria Villarreal
For Austin native Trisha Trevlyn Fortuna, life has been a never-ending series of fortuitous events. A chance visit to Oahu, HI, sparked the inspiration of what would become one of the most unique food experiences on the mainland. Armed with a background in business management and married to a man passionate about discovering and creating unique food experiences, Fortuna embarked on a food journey she never in a million years expected to be on.
“What a crazy, scary and rewarding adventure,” she says. “We started in a food window in Venice Beach on Nov. 10, 2010, and now operate three locations in Austin and one in Fort Worth.”
Almost instantly, the Poke-Poke food window garnered immense praise. From Hawaiian Airlines and Entrepreneur Magazine to the Food Network and Hollywood Reporter, Fortuna and husband Jason McVearry found themselves swept up in a whirlwind of amazing press. Things certainly came to a head when the late American food critic Jonathan Gold sang Poke-Poke’s praises. Since 2014, this husband and wife entrepreneurial duo have certainly given Austin a food experience unlike any other.
Tell us the Poke-Poke origin story.
Poke-Poke started on a Hawaiian Airlines flight back from Hawaii. My husband had lived in Hawaii for many years, and he wanted to introduce me to his nearest and dearest friends in Oahu. He took me to his favorite poke spot, Tamura’s, a grocery chain in Hawaii. I put that first bite of shoyu poke in my mouth and I was in love. I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day we were in Hawaii. If I saw poke, I bought poke, whether it was in a gas station, on the side of the road or at grocery stores.
On the flight back from Hawaii to Venice Beach, I was sad. My husband asked me what was wrong and I said, “This sucks, no more poke.” He said, “Oh! I can make poke for you.” Then and there, the lightbulb lit up and I said, “I’m going to open up a poke shack when we get back,” and he said, “Holy shit! That is a great idea.”
We looked into farmer’s markets, but no one really wanted us, and finding a communal kitchen was proving difficult. The recession was in full swing, and I got let go from my job. That’s when we decided to throw caution to the wind and just open up a poke place.
In the beginning we were both 100% in, full-force, “Let’s be entrepreneurs. We can do this.” I spotted this window on Craigslist in Venice Beach on 19th Avenue and thought it was kind of perfect. My husband was ready to sign the lease right then and there. He’s fearless like that. He lives in the moment. I’m the cautious one. I am already thinking about the P&L (profit and loss), and we haven’t even finished our business plan and all the other operational details that need to get completed before…before what? He was right. We called the landlord that night and signed the lease the next morning without even having a fish supplier in place.
I must’ve had three breakdowns in the first four months we were open. We had to create a sign with the definition and pronunciation of poke. We were so slow that I resorted to handing out samples on roller skates in a bathing suit. Don’t get me wrong, of course, there were a few people here and there that celebrated our opening, but it was small. Sean Astin, from Lord of the Rings, came to our window. I was so excited that he was about to order poke from me, but he just wanted change for a hundred dollar bill.
What about your spin on poke is unique yet still honors its origins?
We originally made poke the way it was made in Hawaii—make big batches, throw it in a bin and sell poke by the pound. Because no one knew what we were selling we found ourselves throwing away fish at night. It was heart-wrenching—food waste always is—and our business was not going to survive with food waste. Hence made-to-order poke was born.
We needed to use fish as it was ordered to save our business and developed flash marinating. We were still making poke from scratch and treating the protein with enough salt, acid and fat to uphold the rich flavor profile of traditional marinated poke. We’re still committed to making poke the way it is intended to be made. Certain steps must be followed to make delicious poke, and we will honor those steps as long as we are open.
You can’t just throw some raw fish in a bowl with some edamame and canned corn and hand your customer a sauce. It takes a little love and finesse and the flick of a wrist to make mouth-watering poke. Typical poke in Hawaii will have a pretty specific flavor profile with limited featured ingredients like limu, chili pepper or shoyu. Since we were now making poke to order, we could do add-ins, creating more complex and customizable flavor profiles.
What has been the reaction to Poke-Poke?
Overall the reaction has been super positive. People love having a delicious, healthy, protein-forward meal. It’s funny to think that 12 years ago I was crying to my husband saying, “What were we thinking? No one is going to eat raw fish on the Venice Boardwalk!” When we moved back to Texas, we were cautiously optimistic with the momentum poke had gained, coupled with the energy behind the food scene in Austin. We opened up Poke-Poke on South Congress in 2016, and it was a crazy opening. We had intended to open up quietly and not do a big grand opening. It was quiet for about two hours, and then it was a madhouse. When you think of fast-casual [dining], well-crafted, super flavorful, healthy food doesn’t usually come to mind. But I think it is what people wanted and needed.
What is your ultimate goal with Poke-Poke?
You know, if I am really being honest, setting goals for your business is different now after COVID. We are a little more grounded. I think it’s hard to forget the weight that all small-business owners carried during that time. The obligation to our staff was immense, and I am proud to say that we battled through it with them; they are a huge part of our business’ success then and now.