Over the past few years, poke has become a sensation. The dish comprises of diced raw fish and other ingredients like raw onions and sesame oil. But not all poke is made equally. That's where Jack DeMar's eatery Pono Ono comes in.

Keeping it in the family

Coffee shops, diners, bars and grills. For the last three generations the DeMar family has been in the restaurant business.

“I was always eating good food, so I always had an appreciation for good food," says Jack DeMar, founder of the poke sensation Pono Ono in Evanston. That appreciation slowly transformed into a hobby, then into a passion and a focus."

Under the guidance of his parents, DeMar has cooked in his family’s restaurants since he was 15, with a little help from Food Network. He knew he wanted to follow his family into the restaurant business. DeMar also knew he wanted to start small: something fast and casual, something he could "get his arms around.” The next step was finding food that would fit the model.

Kikue Higuchi

Landing on poke

Hawaii has been a mainstay in DeMar’s life since he lived there for a year with his family. Since then, he visits annually. Five years ago, DeMar was in Hawaii eating poke, as he usually does when he has a “literal epiphany.” Poke was the perfect solution: it fit his ideal restaurant and it is a food he loves.

However, DeMar had to put his plans on hold and head to Boston for a job he had accepted earlier. While he was in Boston, poke had its 15 minutes of fame on the mainland. When DeMar returned to Chicago, he immediately began scoping out the competition. He quickly realized that large poke chains lacked authenticity and strayed far away from traditional Hawaiian poke. DeMar knew that he could bring something better to the table, something authentic and something healthier. 

How Pono Ono got back to basics

Most poke places follow a build your own model. DeMar felt that was a mistake when working with such a delicate product like raw fish. He also saw it as a stark difference from the way poke is served in Hawaii. Traditionally, poke is pre-seasoned and sold by the pound, much like potato salad or coleslaw. So, DeMar originally set out to follow tradition armed with Hawaiian fish, seaweeds, nuts and spices. 

Kikue Higuchi

Adapting the menu to customers' preferences 

Pono Ono started out with just eight items on the menu. While the eatery always accommodated customers' requests, DeMar thinks, “They didn’t feel like they were empowered to make changes. They felt a little constrained.” The food received good reviews but the business wasn’t there. After a year, DeMar had to compromise. He kept the same flavors but added a "build your own" option. The loss of authenticity was hard to come to terms with for DeMar, but the response he saw from his customers made it worth it. 

Kikue Higuchi

Working sustainability into the business model

Another caveat for DeMar is sustainability. In addition to providing recyclable packaging, he buys all his fish directly from someone on the docks in Hawaii, who then ships the fish to him via FedEx. Hawaii has strict laws regarding where people can fish, how much and the treatment of fisherman, which is why DeMar prefers to buy fish directly from Hawaii. His quest for sustainable food is only derailed by Chicago’s weather forecast. 

What's in a name?

DeMar’s is somewhat ambivalent about Pono Ono as a restaurant name, but its meaning reflects his goals and values as a small business owner. Pono can mean different things in different contexts, but generally it means “to do good” or “to be righteous.” The name is derived from his dedication to sustainability and authenticity in his cuisine. Ono means “delicious,” which is how DeMar hopes people describe his food.

Kikue Higuchi

Pono Ono's future

DeMar plans to open more Pono Ono locations soon. He hopes to open a store with a small section of traditional poke along with a "build your own" option to stay true to the Hawaiian model. But this is in the far future. DeMar is very connected with the idea of small business ownership. He’s still in the kitchen six days a week, prepping fish and making poke.

“It excites me and it’s inspiring. I can be creative and interact with people,” DeMar says. “There’s the hospitality side and the creative side, where you’re creating something that you can get excited about. That’s the balance I’m trying to strike.”