Sweetfin. Photo by Ringo Chiu/LABJ

Sweetfin. Photo by Ringo Chiu/LABJ

A wave of Hawaiian soul food has crashed ashore in Santa Monica, and it doesn’t seem the poké trend will wash away anytime soon.

Santa Monica’s Sweetfin Poké is readying a five-store expansion across Los Angeles before the year’s end. The company’s most recent deal, in June, includes a spot nabbed in West Hollywood, where the group of co-owners is eyeing an early fall opening.

“We call poké the evolution of sushi”, said Seth Cohen, one of Sweetfin’s four co-founders. Their fast-casual concept, averaging $13 a meal, serves up dishes of marinated raw fish, which sits atop a base of salad or rice.

Cohen said poké’s sushi-like appeal inspired him and business partner Brett Nestadt to start researching a concept in 2013 that would be adaptable for expansion outside the region. With restaurateur Alan Nathan on board and chef Dakota Weiss heading the restaurant’s culinary operations, the team opened up shop in Santa Monica in April of last year.

Business has been taking off for the year-old venture. First-year revenue for Sweetfin’s inaugural location hit $3 million, Cohen said. The shop, located on Broadway a few blocks east of the Third Street Promenade, averages around 90 transactions an hour – well above preopening expectations of about 60 transactions.

Poké has long been a staple in traditional Hawaiian cuisine, but the healthy dish picked up steam in Los Angeles last year, when dozens of restaurants specializing in the raw fish dish began to emerge – and expand – across the region. Santa Monica’s Seasalt Fish Grill hooked a location downtown last year and Mainland Poké Shop in Beverly Grove has a second restaurant opening in Glendale later this year.

“A key differentiator between what we’re doing and what other poké shops have done is rooted in our truly unique chef-driven concept that’s fueled by our partner Dakota,” Cohen said. “It’s California inspired with a Japanese flare, not explicitly traditional.”

Sweetfin announced in January that it had it raked in a financing deal backed by former Shake Shack Chief Executive David Swinghamer, who’s also on board as one of Sweetfin’s strategic advisers. Other investors include hospitality veteran Larry Mindel, founder of California’s Il Fornaio restaurant chain, and a New York private equity investor.

The terms of Sweetfin’s funding round were not disclosed, but owners said they have closed on deals for four locations: downtown, Larchmont Village, Westwood, and Canoga Park.

The next location to open will be at the Village at Westfield Topanga, where a 1,700-square-foot space is set to open next month. It will be the largest location thus far; the flagship Santa Monica store is 1,000 square feet, as is the West Hollywood outpost.

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