Poke, a dish local to and cherished by Hawaiʻi, has hit the food mecca of New York City. Indulging in quality, fresh raw fish would normally cost four Yelp dollar signs, especially in New York City. But now, with poke being offered in a fast casual setting, trustworthy, tasty and fresh raw fish is available to even those with the budget of a college student.
Wisefish Poké, is exactly one of these places where fast, healthy and fresh meets affordability. The joint just recently opened on January 26, 2016 and is located in Chelsea, Manhattan. The two men behind the creation of Wisefish Poké are Bryan Cowan and Drew Crane.
While on a trip to Maui, Hawaiʻi, Crane stumbled upon poke at the local hotel he had been staying at and immediately fell in love. He rented a car and hit up as many poke spots on the island as he could, asking local residents for help along the way.
His favorite was Tamuras, which is a local favorite as well. Whenever he felt like having poke in New York City, he could never find it. Over the course of four years, he, along with the help of Cowan, decided to bring poke to New York City.
The vision has become a reality at the shop where the vibe is light and friendly and the food is as fresh as the crew’s Wisefish branded snapbacks and beanies.
Customers can order from a variety of House Favorites which include ingredient mixes and flavor profiles for everyone. Or, customers can customize their own bowl choosing a base (white or brown rice or zucchini noodles), a protein (ahi tuna, salmon or tofu), mix-ins (cucumber, edamame, sea beans and many more), sauces (spicy citrus shoyu, wasabi shoyu and others ) and too many toppings to list here. The food is made right in front of you, just like other fast casual spots like Chipotle or Sweetgreen.
Cowan and Crane are both former employees of the money management industry. Cowan graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and Manufacturing and Design Engineering and went on to work in consulting and private equity before entering the food industry as an Assistant General Manager of Shake Shack.
Crane is a graduate of the University of Mississippi with a degree in Accounting and went on to work in commercial real estate and then finance at Goldman Sachs.
Here are a few insights of the men who went from finance and money management to serving some of the best poke in New York City.
Spoon: What were your first thoughts of poke?
Drew: What I thought was so cool was that it’s so simple but in such a beautiful way. You get it from a liquor store or a grocery store and it’s really unpretentious and laid back and I love that about poke. At the same time, it’s actually one of the freshest foods you could possibly get if done the right way. I like the juxtaposition of it being laid back and the unpretentiousness of it but also it’s super fresh with super good flavors and it’s super crisp.
Spoon: How do you think the New York food scene differs from food scenes elsewhere?
Drew: New York is a city that knows their food well, that loves their food, takes their food very seriously. New York has a lot of options and a lot of top quality restaurants all the way from the finest dining restaurants in the city to the bodegas that serve the best bacon, egg and cheese you could ever get.
There is a lot in NYC that is constantly changing and I think there is a lot of opportunity for restaurateurs here in the city who have the passion, the drive, and the idea to really bring something new to the city. The city can be very accepting of that just because there is such a focus on food and a focus on the experience.
Spoon: What do you think it is about poke that gives it so much appeal?
Drew: I think it is the freshness of the ingredients first and foremost. I think it’s a pretty unique dish in that a lot of the components of it and tastes and flavors are familiar to people but the delivery of it is something new.
There is kind of this act of discovery with it which I think is pretty unique. You can have some more fun with it, at least the way that we’ve interpreted poke, our kind of take on it is that you can make it yours. You can add different flavors and tastes that appeal to you. I think that is what people really like. I think it’s the freshness of it, you know, the familiarity of it and the fact that they can make it theirs.
Spoon: How did you develop the menu?
Drew: Through experimentation with different recipes, we came up with our menu. Some of the sauces that we found ourselves tending to go back to when we were making poke for ourselves. And we wanted it to be fun. We wanted it to be something that was unique. Maybe some different kinds of tastes and flavors that if you’re familiar with poke, you maybe haven’t seen before.
And if you are familiar with poke, there is stuff on there that is more traditional. We wanted to strike the balance between having those traditional flavors that a lot of people that have poke tend to think of but also put in our interpretation or spin on some of the flavors and ingredients that we have on our menu.
Bryan: I think the mix-ins, and that we look to what’s fresh, what’s being grown, what’s having a good season, maybe things people aren’t too familiar with. Like sea beans is one that during our testing we were in a grocery store and saw this, we were like, “what is this” and we tasted it right there and said, “this is perfect.” We want to be able to also offer people a new experience and ability to maybe taste some things they haven’t before and something that is at the peak of its season or really fresh.
Drew: And the fish was incredibly important to us. We partner with Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Co. and Wild Fish Direct. They are the two guys who we think are really doing it right. For us, it was really important to get the freshest fish but to also do it in a way that we know where it is coming from.
What’s important to us and what’s at the core of our values and who we are is the sustainability of the fish, knowing where it comes from, knowing it was sourced responsibly, knowing that we’re serving really, really fresh top quality fish.
Spoon: In what ways do you add your own flare to the poke served here?
Drew: Traditionally in Hawaii you go in, it’s been made, you buy it by the pound. We took that traditional poke concept and derived it into something that was more NYC. It allows for more individualization, has some different ingredients and flavors that you wouldn’t normally taste in a traditional poke. But I think that’s the beauty of poke, it’s a dish that can evolve, it’s a dish that has a ton of versatility to it and you could do a lot with it.
Bryan: We are trying to put our spin on it. It’s hard to create that amazing, Hawaiian poke, here, or anywhere. Part of it is also the atmosphere and the surrounding, and the history and the culture that makes it so unique and special to Hawai’i. Here, we are trying to use that as inspiration and bring something that has our spin on it.
Spoon: You both seem like adventurous eaters. Where do you think that comes from?
Drew: For me, I grew up in Hong Kong so I just ate all the food. My parents are from Saudi Arabia so we were very multicultural there. We always ate a lot of stuff. I’ve never been afraid to try something. I love eating new foods, it’s one of my passions.
Bryan: I think I just developed it along the way. My parents weren’t very adventurous eaters but I kind of broke away and would try things on menus that they were like, “no, you can’t do that.” My mom actually doesn’t eat raw fish. We’re getting there. She’s starting to come around. It was just something that I started liking at an early age and continued with it.
Spoon: How does the work you did in the past overlap with the work that you do now?
Drew: The education that I got at my previous jobs were a lot about time management, prioritizing, working with people, working with a team. That’s all stuff that we use every single day here. I’ve taken a lot of stuff from my previous career to Wisefish.
Bryan: Industrial Engineering is a lot about process and supply chain and definitely that has a lot to do with what we do in the kitchen. From the investing standpoint, just being able to understand and think through all of the aspects of actually managing the business as opposed to running the restaurant, per se.
Spoon: What was it like transitioning from your previous work to this type of work?
Drew: A big time learning experience. Brian had done some time at Shake Shack. For me, I kind of had this jumping into it headfirst and it has been a huge learning experience. And luckily, we’ve had each other to be there to support one another because it’s a huge undertaking opening a restaurant in New York City.
It’s a lot of work. A lot of hours. But to see this come to life, and to see us execute on our vision, it’s surreal. There’ll be times when we’re in the back and there’s a line out front and we’ll be like, “can you believe this right now?”
Bryan: The industry as a whole has been really welcoming and nice. We’ve connected with a lot of other small restaurant owners who went through the same things that we did and they were really helpful in answering all our questions and pointed us in the right directions for vendors and partners and things like that and it has really been great to see that.
Spoon: What is some advice you’d give to someone looking to take the leap into the food industry?
Drew: Really think through every aspect of it. Putting together a business plan was one of the best things that we did. You start to think about all the different things that go into opening a restaurant. It’s not just that the food is good. There are so many different variables that go into it.
Putting pen to paper was really helpful in getting through that stuff. And then sharing it with mentors in and outside of the industry. What I found is that people really want to help you and that help can really be valuable. It’s a fun industry, it’s a hard industry, but at the end of the day, it’s really rewarding. I love it.
Bryan: I would say, if you’re still in school, do a summer internship, whether as a manager or at a shift in a restaurant to see how things run and get used to it. It’s definitely a different lifestyle. Just to understand it, to make sure you’re loving it every day and if you’re not, it may not be the right decision for you.
It’s trial and error when it comes to finding exactly what you’re passionate about. If you don’t absolutely love it, do something else. If you absolutely love working in a restaurant, then start a restaurant.
Spoon: What were your thoughts on your career plans right out of college compared to how you see your career now?
Drew: I always actually wanted to do something entrepreneurial and I was always fascinated by the hospitality industry so it’s not that surprising to me where I am right now. I always knew I’d do something entrepreneurial, it was just what was it going to be. And this is it. So I’m not incredibly surprised by where we are.
Bryan: I’d tell you the same thing. I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I wanted to learn a lot of different aspects of business with consulting and private equity. I think I’ve always been intrigued by restaurants.
I always said as a kid that my mom and uncle should open a family restaurant. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. So, it’s not too surprising that I wound up in the restaurant space. It wasn’t always my plan, but it was the industry that I fell in love with.
Spoon: What is your long-term vision for Wisefish?
Drew: I just want to serve really good poke and serve an experience that people just love. When people come in here and they tell us they love the food or the people, or just the experience, it’s just so rewarding.
If we can just continue to do that day in and day out, that’s my personal goal for Wisefish. To make people happy. To make people enjoy the poke, enjoy the vibes and have a good time and talk to our people and eat our food.
Spoon: Favorite food growing up
Drew: Chicken nuggets and fries
Bryan: Veal Parm
Spoon: Favorite food now?
Bryan: Veal parm
Spoon: Best place to eat in NYC
Drew: Jefferey’s Grocery
Spoon: Best place to get drinks
Bryan: The Patriot Saloon
Spoon: Best drink with poke
Drew: LaCroix Sparkling Water
Bryan: Ito En Green Tea
(Both are available at Wisefish Poké)
Spoon: Best dish that you cook
Drew: Broiled salmon, baked veggie and a beer
Bryan: Italian, parmesan and lasagna
Spoon: Favorite thing on menu
Drew: Hawaii Style (ahi tuna, sweet onion, hijiki, scallion and classic sauce)
Bryan: West Swell (ahi tuna, sweet onion, herb mix, tobiko, wasabi avocado cream and Wisefish sauce)