Centered in the back of SoFA Market across from The Fountainhead Bar, Hawaiian Poke Bowl is a modest operation with a voracious following. What began a few years back as a small stand at the farmers’ market has blossomed into one of downtown San Jose’s best-known poke purveyors. Hawaiian Poke Bowl’s reputation is anchored in a straightforward ethos: freshness.
“When people leave our place, I want them to say that we’re a family business that works hard and can feed huge amounts of people, no matter how large or how difficult it can be,” says Marcia Ribeiro, founder of Hawaiian Poke Bowl, the local poke spot that has spawned a bevy of copycats all over the Bay.
“The concept of serving fresh food didn’t immediately grab me,” Marcia says with enthusiasm. “I grabbed it!” When she first came to the US, she began making changes in her life, including eating healthier. “I started to care about what I ate and was more aware of my choices,” she says. “I started cooking more. With fresh food, what you see is what you get, and I really love that about our product.” And with that move, Marcia was reaching back in time.
The origin of her business springs from childhood, a time when her family instilled in her an ardent passion for seafood, especially fish. “My upbringing was in large part due to my grandpa, who had eighteen siblings,” Marcia recalls. “We grew up in a fishing village, so my grandpa knew how to prepare fish. He was an expert.” And it wasn’t only the adults who appreciated that expertise. “As children, we would fight for parts of the fish,” she says, laughing.
But food preparation wasn’t limited to the home. Marcia’s family was in the restaurant business, one uncle combining it with an entertainment club. And her grandfather often prepared feasts for hundreds. “I was always involved with food,” Marcia laughs. “Always preparing it, always serving it, and always eating it. It has always been a part of me.”
Another essential ingredient to the later significance of those early years? Her mother, a strong female figure who, much like Marcia herself, was a natural leader with sound business sense. Although Marcia had no business experience prior to opening the restaurant, her mother had run several small businesses all through Marcia’s childhood. Growing up with an entrepreneurial mother, Marcia had been in training for the role without knowing it. “It all came together naturally,” she says. “My whole life has been about business and food, and Hawaiian Poke Bowl is the result of those things.”
Even with a rich background in food and service, though, the realities of running an eatery can loom large. It starts with having a great product and an immaculately built serving space, but it doesn’t end there. Relations with the staff are, in a sense, at the core of it all. It’s the staff who engage the customers; it’s the staff who prepare the food; it’s the staff who represent the soul of the place. But Marcia took it further, thinking also in terms of paying a living wage. “This is a question I think is very important,” she says, “especially since we live in an expensive area.”
With poke restaurants sprouting up all over the Bay Area in the last few years, it’s important to note which ones laid the foundation initially for those consumers now comfortable with the concept. Marcia is well aware of competition, but perhaps more importantly, she understands the strengths of her product and her operation.
“Now there’re poke places everywhere with this sort of Chipotle mindset, where at the end you have a huge pile of stuff overflowing your plate. But in most of those places, the ‘stuff’ isn’t mostly fish. I don’t like that. I don’t think of poke as salad. You can have salad with your poke, but to me it’s protein. I kept the concept very simple: warm rice and a big ol’ scoop of fish,” she says. “High-grade quality, wild fish. Nothing else.”
Written by David Ma
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.4 “Perform”