By Nan Price, Content Manager MetroHartford Alliance
Pokeworks – West Hartford Co-Owners Sonny Chen and Max Condren are serial entrepreneurs, lifelong friends, and community advocates. The two grew up in the West End of Hartford, where they began collaborating business ideas to find different ways to make money—whether it was shoveling sidewalks or selling early versions of flip phones with cameras.
Sonny got his start in business working part-time at China House, his family’s Chinese restaurant on Farmington Avenue in Hartford.
“I saw that being in the restaurant business is a team thing,” he says. “I learned a lot and I realized I really liked the food industry and working with people.”
Inspiration struck and, along with help from his dad and Max, Sonny opened his first restaurant, Black Bamboo, in 2010.
With Max doing some marketing and Sonny’s business acumen, Black Bamboo became well known in the community. “I think a major part of its success is not just that the food is great, but it’s Sonny’s familiarity with all his customers,” acknowledges Max. “He’s great with customer service and he’s really plugged into West Hartford.”
About five years ago, the two were searching for a new concept to bring to the market and wanted to stay in the realm of Asian cuisine. Max was spending a lot of time in New York City, which is where he became aware of poke.
“Pokeworks had just started in December 2016. From the very beginning, I was following the brand because we were thinking about doing something on our own,” explains Max. “We were talking to Black Bamboo customers and checking in with friends and we realized, at the time, people weren’t very familiar with poke in our area. So, we didn’t want to jump into it building our own concept.”
A franchise seemed like a good fit.
“The benefit of this national brand helped us have more familiarity. The term ‘poke’ was becoming more recognized. People could search for it online and find out exactly what it is. It was popping up all over social media, too,” says Max.
“One of the things that drew us to the concept of owning a franchise is that we really wanted to bring something healthy, fast, and fresh to the area,” adds Sonny.
Choosing a Location
With one successful restaurant already in West Hartford, the two found it helpful to open a new concept nearby. “With the clientele we have at Black Bamboo, I can naturally introduce the concept to my customers, suggesting they check it out as a more casual dining or takeout experience—and something new to try,” explains Sonny.
They did contemplate Hartford—and still have downtown on their radar for a future location.
“Sonny and I have always been really drawn to Hartford; it’s where we got our start,” says Max. “We’d like to eventually open a location in downtown Hartford, and we see other communities in Greater Hartford where there could be a demand for this type of food. Right now, we’re focused on getting the West Hartford location up and running.”
The location they chose at Corbins Corner was in a completely redeveloped space, conducive to collaborations with other tenants—and helping the owners maintain their community feel.
“Quite a few companies nearby focus on a healthy lifestyle—REI, Trader Joe’s, Edge Fitness, and HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent Care, to name a few. We’re excited to offer a fresh, sustainable eating option and hope we can find creative ways to work together,” says Max.
“We’d like to tap into some of the organizations Black Bamboo already supports. For example, Conard High School is close by, so we want to start holding community fundraisers where some of our proceeds would go toward the school,” adds Sonny. “What’s helpful is, we’re in a regional shopping area with access to the metro lines, so we can draw more people from in and around our community and eventually support more Greater Hartford-focused initiatives.”
New Ways of Doing Business
Sonny and Max admit that transitioning to a franchise model is a different experience than starting a restaurant from the ground up. But there are some similarities, particularly in terms of business ownership and “being very hands-on and community oriented,” Sonny emphasizes.
“The franchise helped provide a business prototype and a template—start with a soft opening, then a grand opening event. They also help with some social media and advertising and provide recommendations, which is beneficial,” explains Max. “We also like that they’re very responsive to us wanting to customize things to make sure we create a local, community feel.”
Sonny agrees, “I like that we’re still a small business that offers that small business experience.”