The traditional Hawaiian dish of poké has proliferated citywide on menus and in standalone eateries, and Hai Poké has enjoyed fast popularity thanks to Cordero and Woodson's clever branding and infectious energy.
Why They're Tastemakers
For many loyal fans, Nile Woodson and Mico Cordero are poké evangelists, spreading the good word about the dish of sticky rice, veggies and raw yellowfin tuna. The traditional Hawaiian meal has proliferated citywide on menus and in standalone eateries, and the duo's company, Hai Poké, has enjoyed fast popularity thanks to their clever branding and infectious energy. Hai Poké grew from a weekend pop-up in August 2015 to a food truck to a highly anticipated brick-and-mortar location coming soon to the Short North.
Woodson spent five years as a server at Rigsby's Kitchen while earning his marketing degree from Ohio State University. He dreamed of opening his own restaurant to draw upon his passion for both. Then, on a trip to LA, he had a lightbulb moment: Everyone around him was ordering poké from a tiny takeout window and enjoying it along Venice Beach. “I ate it and instantly fell in love,” Woodson says. This is perfect, he thought. Why not a sushi bowl in the Midwest?
A Culinary Crash Course
The learning curve was steep for the pair of untrained chefs. Cordero was working for an app startup in Toledo when Woodson lured him to Columbus, and founding a restaurant was a “crazy-big stretch.” Woodson cold-called places searching for a fish supplier; they discovered that wonton skins are sold frozen and had to borrow Bodega's fryer, only hours before their first pop-up at Oddfellows Liquor Bar; the waterproof menus they printed were, well, not. But the reception was overwhelmingly positive, and they jumped into the entrepreneurial waters soon afterward. “We were very unsure at that point exactly what our fate was going to be,” Woodson says, “and that was very stressful, anxious, exciting.”
Tastemaking by Committee
Woodson and Cordero never pretended to know exactly how their poké bowls should taste, instead offering feedback cards at their early pop-ups to gauge what people wanted. They fine-tuned accordingly—like adding spicy mayo—and they think the process encouraged people to be supportive rather than critical. “It became more of a movement,” Cordero says. “Everyone came back and tried the bowl again and was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is awesome! This is what I requested last time.'”
The Best of Hai Poké
The first permanent Hai Poké restaurant (647 N. High St.) will open early this summer, and the co-founders plan to continue operating the food truck and weekly pop-ups as a test of their ability to scale the operation. They're eyeing bigger goals—a second local eatery by the end of 2017, perhaps another food truck and expansion outside of Columbus next year. For now, they want to prove their poké bowl is no one-hit wonder. “What you have here is like a top-of-the-charts, No. 1 Billboard hit,” Woodson recalls one person telling him. “And now you need to make a greatest hits album.”