What started as a LinkedIn message has turned into a major investment for Sweetfin, a Los Angeles-based poke concept.
Seth Cohen, the 14-unit fast casual’s president and co-founder, said he received a message from the CEO of Poke House, a 75-unit poke chain based in Italy, about a year ago “to talk shop.”
Several months of Zoom calls later and Cohen and Poke House’s Matteo Pichi agreed on a joint venture structure in which Sweetfin retains full control of its brand with Poke House as its largest single investor.
“We’ve always grown cautiously and carefully,” Cohen said. The undisclosed investment will allow his concept to add units in its homebase of Southern California but also in states such as Arizona, Texas and Florida.
The money will also allow Sweetfin to add to its executive team, he said, with the goal of tripling its store count over the next three years.
Sweetfin debuted in 2015, an early entrant into what became a crowed fast-casual poke concept market several years later. The chain’s menu is entirely gluten-free and everything (sauces, toppings, lemonades and more) is made in-house. The brand has partnered with a number of well-known chefs over the years and has a menu that borrows from international cuisine, Cohen said.
“We’ve always focused on differentiating ourselves from day one,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, Sweetfin had a digital focus. Today, more than 80% of all orders come in through digital channels. The typical Sweetfin unit is about 1,000-square-feet, with a largely off-premise operation.
Poke House has restaurants in Italy, France, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. It had more than $50 million in total revenue in 2021 and has 80 additional restaurant openings planed in 2022.
“We are thrilled to enter the American market in partnership with an iconic and beloved brand that has made California-inspired poke a true institution,” Pichi said in a statement.
Like Sweetfin, Poke House is tech-focused, with a proprietary CRM platform that allows it to track consumer trends.
There is a possibility, Cohen said, that the two concepts could combine into one in the coming years.
“It would have to be agreed upon,” he said. “That’s not predetermined.”
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