Though the core menu feature of the new Wikiwiki Poke Shop is rooted in the popular Hawaiian poke bowl tradition, its owner Keith Allard says the restaurant’s concept aims for more versatility than just one island’s cuisine.
“We started out with whatever proteins we wanted to highlight and then started thinking about what ingredients are available year round and what will be the highest quality, but most sustainable things to get from our suppliers,” says Allard, who is preparing to open for business in a newly renovated space at 1146 Wealthy Street SE.
Meaning “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian, “poke” refers to chunks of raw, marinated fish that can be combined with a whole host of other ingredients, but is typically tossed over rice and topped with veggies and other seasonings or sauces.
At Wikiwiki Poke Shop, customers have the option to build their own bowl with customized proteins and toppings, or order try one of the signature recipes straight off the menu, handcrafted by the Wikiwiki kitchen staff.
“For example, we’d say, ‘what’s our favorite way to eat Tuna?’ and then work backwards from there,” he says. “We want to make sure the fish is always the centerpiece of the meal, but also be sure to compliment it with other flavors, too.”
However, the ease of customization and user-friendliness of the poke bowl is a big part of the allure for Allard, who appreciates the unique opportunity the cuisine affords in providing a quick but healthy option that doesn’t limit those with food allergies and other dietary restrictions the same way other fast-casual foods often do.
"You’re dealing with a product and type of food that’s naturally gluten-free and naturally dairy-free," he says, "There are so with food allergies or intolerances, or who are even just really focused on what goes into their food, in general, as a matter of health and wellness…I think (poke) is just very friendly for those who are conscious about those kinds of things, which is something that inspired me to explore this concept."
Not that those kinds of foods are hard to find in Eastown. As a resident himself, Allard says he loves how robust the neighborhood’s restaurant scene has become, but saw an opportunity to create the kind of place he’s always wanted to have close to home -- a low-key lunch and dinner spot where quick and speedy service can afford customers more accessibility to the kind of versatile, chef-inspired flavors that can be harder to find among other healthy meal options.
So, when Allard starting hearing about all kinds of quick-stop poke places popping up along the West Coast and then eventually moving inward to cities like Chicago and Madison, Wisc., he thought bringing a similar concept to Grand Rapids seemed like a no-brainer.
“I saw it and it just clicked for me:this is the kind of food I’d love to eat and have available on a regular basis as a quick lunch or just a healthy dinner type option,” he says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it and eventually grew into a business here.”
A former candidate for Michigan’s House of Representatives back in 2014, Allard left behind his career in politics to chase after a career in cooking full-time, driven ultimately to choose a passion that felt more organic to him, and certainly less complicated.
“I always liked cooking and so aside from my full-time job, at night, I had a second full-time job just cooking in restaurants in Grand Rapids,” says Allard, eventually earning a spot as manager for a few of the venues he worked at, including Fishlads in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. “I decided I don’t like being part of politics — working in kitchens is a lot less messy — so I decided to take that up as my full-time career.”
While Allard says he wants some of the interior’s aesthetic highlights to remain a surprise for opening day—including the specifications of a 40-foot-long hand-painted mural stretching along the back wall of the restaurant—he did say customers won’t find much reclaimed wood or exposed beams in his new space.
Designed with a clean, modern edge, Allard drew his inspiration from a visit to the Shed Aquarium with his fiancé, where he was struck by a vibrant exhibit featuring a jellyfish backlit by various colored spotlights and black lights.
“Just the way the jellyfish contrasted with the colors and that sense of movement—those pictures are what I showed our interior and graphic designers and said I want to try and capture that,” he says.
Because Wikiwiki is still waiting on final clearances from the Kent County Health Department, he can’t give an exact opening date quite yet, but says he intends to hit the ground running sooner rather than later sometime this fall.
“In colloquial Hawaiian, Wikiwiki means ‘quick’ or ‘speedy,’” Allard says, “so we want our restaurant to be that place for people who want a fast lunch or dinner spot where they don’t have to wait long, or call ahead—we definitely want to make sure to preserve that quickness in our service.”
Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Wikiwiki Poke Shop & Oyster Bar