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Updated: October 12, 2020 Shop talk

Q&A: Worcester restaurant has embarked on a 17-month raw fish odyssey

Photo | Courtesy Island Fin Poke owner Jim Way

In July 2019, Jim Way and his wife, Marilyn, opened one of the few poké restaurants in Central Massachusetts, offering the unique food bowls typically made up of raw fish and fresh vegetables. After a rough year, which bottomed out in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, their Island Fin Poké restaurant in Worcester would go on to set the franchise records for daily, weekly and monthly sales. This interview originally appeared in an episode of the WBJ Podcast, the Weekly Business Report.

Why a poké restaurant?

In the fall of 2018, I lost my job after 26 years at a major retail company. After starting the interview process to maybe look at a job for another retail company, my wife realized my heart wasn’t in it. We decided to do something different.

We had always talked about opening up a little sandwich shop after we retired, but we decided to start a little early, as we are not ready for retirement. We were looking at a couple of sandwich shops when someone told us about the idea of poké. We flew down to Florida to meet with Mark Setterington, the founder of Island Fin Poké, and we just loved the food.

This wasn’t something we really had up in New England, but we could see it coming. We knew it is something people in New England would love because of the freshness and how healthy and tasty it is. My wife has celiac disease, and everything we serve is gluten-free, so that was the icing on the cake.

How did it go at the beginning?

It started off strong when we opened in July 2019, but it slowed down quickly. August, September, October and even through Christmas were really a struggle for us. A couple of times I talked to my wife, saying “I don’t know if we are going to make it. I don’t know what we are doing wrong.” I ended up talking to Mark, and he said one of the things we weren’t doing enough of was letting people know who we were. So, we started hitting social media and marketing more – using Facebook and Instagram – and doing promotions in the store.

When did sales pick back up?

After New Year’s – since poké is such a healthy food and weight loss is such a big resolution – we started to get a lot of people. Our sales started taking off into January, February and early March. We kept the marketing on, just to keep our momentum.

Then COVID hit, and the waterfall got turned off. We never closed, but there were days that felt like we were closed. One week, we got $200 in sales.

Did you have to make staff cuts?

We did have to reduce staff and hours. We were closing at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., all the way into May. We had to keep our staff in teams, in order to keep our people in tight groups, because we wanted to stay safe from COVID. My wife and I were one team, and then we had two other employees as another team. It was basically just the four of us for a long time.

Did you ever consider closing?

At one point early in the pandemic, I looked at my wife and said, “I don’t know how we are going to pay the bills. I don’t know how we are going to pay rent.” Luckily, our landlord was great to work with, as he let us defer rent payments. That was a huge help. We got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped.

But then, in mid-to-late April, we started to see a pickup in our takeout orders. We started to even get back to the same levels as January, February and early March.

How did you set the franchise records?

It happened on our anniversary week. We opened on July 10, 2019, so during our anniversary week this year, that was the busiest week ever.

On our anniversary day, we actually had to shut down early at 7 p.m. because we ran out of food. On our very first day in 2019, we did about $3,300 in sales, so I told my wife if we could get that this year, that would be awesome. By about 4 p.m., we were way past that. By 6 p.m., I saw we had no fish left. We had nothing left. It was the busiest day ever. That momentum carried out throughout the whole month of July.

The community of Worcester has really embraced us, even though all of COVID.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Editor Brad Kane.

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