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Pokeworks goes on a pandemic hiring spree

The 60-unit fast-casual chain says the hiring of three industry executives, “the big three,” will position the concept for growth.
Photo courtesy Pokeworks

Pokeworks, a 60-unit fast casual, was looking for a chief operating officer during the pandemic when it was struck by an embarrassment of riches.

The Irving, Calif.-based chain, which had been run by nine co-founders since it launched in 2015, discovered there was a lot of restaurant industry talent that was suddenly available, Michael Chen, Pokeworks’ president and one of its co-founders said.

So, it ended up hiring three industry veterans for key roles as the brand grows: Michael Walters (chief operating officer), Steve Heeley (chief marketing officer) and Larry Sidoti (chief development officer).

“We realized we were growing too quickly,” Chen said. “You can always find people that can do things better than yourself, as a founder … We have too many franchisees and we want to treat them well. We need to find someone who has done this before so we can do it well.”

All of the concept’s founders will remain involved with Pokeworks to some degree, Chen said, and three founders remain on the board.

The poke bowl concept has set forth a fairly aggressive growth strategy, with plans to open 10 new restaurants this year and 30 next year.

Sidoti, who has extensive experience with franchisees, will help as the brand expands.

“Larry was so successful with the franchise-development part,” Chen said. “He has opened hundreds of restaurants. He has expertise and understanding of real estate and of providing franchisees with the right service levels and how to vet out the right franchisees for our system.”

Heeley, previously the CEO of Veggie Grill, has experience in educating diners about a concept, Chen said.

And bringing on Walters allows Mike Wu, Pokeworks’ CEO, to focus on his passion: culinary development, he said.

“Now that we’ve brought in these talented, experienced operators, he can go back to focusing on the food,” Chen said.

By bringing in “the big three,” he added, “we can really do something with this brand.”

The founders have been working closely with the new executives to make sure everyone is aligned with the brand identity.

“We made sure they held up our core values,” Chen said. “We should evolve. With new leadership, we need to evolve. We’re not going to lose that vision.”


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