For Ohio State alumnus Nile Woodson, Hai Poké started as an idea — an idea that became a concept, then a pop-up, then a food truck and, finally, as of Sept. 22, a restaurant.
“When I was a senior at [Ohio State], I traveled to Los Angeles frequently and discovered poké as it was blowing up out there,” Woodson said. “I felt like it would be awesome to bring a new, different, trendy food here and that would be my concept.”
Poké is a traditional Hawaiian dish made of diced raw fish. American variations typically add rice, avocados, Asian-inspired sauces and sometimes other types of proteins.
As a college student, Woodson did not have enough money to make his dream happen, so he looked to the internet for help and started a Crowdfunding campaign with support from his roommate, Miko Cordero.
“We raised $12,000 in 30 days, [which is] nowhere near enough to open a whole restaurant but enough to get us on our feet and pull the community around us and that was really powerful right out of the gate,” Woodson said.
On Aug. 13, 2015, the pair used the money to open a “pop-up” restaurant, called Hai Poké, two nights a week at Oddfellows Liquor Bar in the Short North — and from there, business has been nonstop.
With the big success of the pop-up restaurant, Woodson said they realized they needed more than two nights a week to sustain their business. They later expanded to the Denmark and Red Velvet Café before starting a food truck and doing festivals and catering events. Hai Poké eventually started serving lunch five days a week at Pure Pressed Juice Bar.
As of a few weeks ago, however, Hai Poké opened its first restaurant in the Short North at 674 N. High St. near Brassica.
“We had been looking for spaces the whole time and I finally found this place one day last fall when I was riding my bike to the North Market,” Cordero said.
The road to owning their own shop was a long and arduous process with many bumps, but Woodson is happy with the way things worked out.
“I think our [gradual] approach and method helped things go relatively smooth,” Woodson said. “We took our time, established ourselves in Columbus, built the brand and did it all on a solid timeline to make sure we crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s.”
The Sept. 22 grand opening was everything the duo said it could have hoped for.
“The best feeling of this whole thing was the first person that came in and ordered a bowl,” Cordero said. “I will always remember that moment because that’s when it became really real.”
As for the future of Hai Poké, Woodson and Cordero said now that they have more space, they have plans to expand their simple menu, hopefully with the help of their customers.
“We know a little bit more about poké than most people,” Woodson said. “We thought these were the best bowls but even getting here took a lot of feedback from people.”
The pair said it hopes to expand its number of locations at some point, but wants to make sure to focus on their flagship first.
“I started this business because I had a vision this would be amazing in Columbus,” Woodson said. “So knowing that something so good to me is so good to so many other people and bringing that vision to life is definitely the best thing.”
Above all, they said they’re happy to be home.
“It feels like we’ve been traveling and living an Airbnb-type lifestyle, so it’s really nice to finally be home and have our feet firmly planted,” Cordero said.