Kansas City native Jeremiah Dupin thought he would be a lot of things in life – but a restaurateur was not one of them.
After graduating from high school, Dupin left Kansas City to serve in the military as a United States Marine, where his tours took him to Iraq and Kuwait. After the military, Dupin decided to turn his passion for fitness and international travel into a series of business opportunities that took him around the globe. He eventually landed in Dubai with a dream job as the personal trainer to a high-profile local family.
It was that relationship – coupled with his head for business, a passion for healthy living and a love of poke (poh-KAY) – that ultimately led to his new career as the founder of Poke Poke, Dubai’s first poke bowl restaurant, which opened in January 2017.
Now, the 32-year-old entrepreneur has returned home to Kansas City to open his first stateside fast-casual poke bowl restaurant: Freestyle Poke. The build-your-own poke bowl restaurant will also serve local beers and a few wines in addition to having local kombucha on tap.
Dupin will be opening Freestyle Poke in a 1,000-square-foot space in the River Market that was previously home to Folk Store, a retail music shop. The shotgun-style space is located directly on the streetcar line and joins some of the other recently announced new restaurants opening on Delaware including Tribe KC and Our Daily Nada.
Craig Slawson, the Denver-based founder of Epoch Developments who has purchased 10 historic buildings along Delaware from Independence Avenue to East Third Street, is behind the new development. His plans are to open a hotel, condominiums and many more street-level merchants along Delaware. One year from now, Kansas City will not likely recognize this formerly sleepy little street in the River Market, soon to be full of thriving new restaurants and retail shops all fueled by foot traffic from the streetcar.
“I have been gone from Kansas City for 13 years, and a lot has changed,” says Dupin. “But people are still so friendly here, and I like everything that is happening in the River Market right now. I plan to make this store our flagship with a commissary kitchen, that will be able to fuel future growth and new locations across Kansas City.”
Dupin’s path to poke started in the summer of 2016 when he found himself needing to take a break from his college studies. He booked a ticket to spend the summer in Bali, where he enjoyed his first poke bowl over dinner with friends.
It was then that he realized that these healthy and filling bowls had real potential as a casual dining restaurant concept. He spent the rest of that summer writing up the business plan. Instead of returning to school, he flew to Dubai in September of 2016 with a business plan to open the first casual poke bowl restaurant in Dubai. After a few investors signed on, he opened Poke Poke in Dubai one year ago. When he sold out of poke bowls in the first three hours on opening day, he knew he was onto something.
“Poke is this simple raw fish dish that originated in Hawaii, and I quickly realized that I could use my connections in fitness and my experience with international travel to take poké around the world,” explains Dupin.
During a recent trip home to visit family in Kansas City, the potential of his friendly hometown convinced him to end his partnership in Poke Poke in Dubai so he could open a new restaurant and bring Freestyle Poke to the Midwest.
“Part of being an entrepreneur is about learning from every mistake, and the lessons I learned with Poke Poke will inform the decisions I make as I move forward with Freestyle Poke,” says Dupin. “I believe the people you choose to work with should fill in the places where you are lacking, and I am lucky enough to have someone with culinary talent helping me with Freestyle Poke.”
To that end, chef Kealan O’Boyle has come on board as the general manager of Freestyle Poke. The local chef has much experience sourcing and working with fresh and sustainable fish and seafood, as he was formerly the executive chef at Mass Street Fish House and Raw Bar in Lawrence. He graduated with a degree in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management from New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, and has 11 years of restaurant and hospitality experience spanning across the country – including a 2 Michelin Star restaurant.
“We will take what Jeremiah learned from Poke Poke and create all new recipes making them unique to the seasonal flavors of the Midwest, and offer special chef-driven bowls as well as our signature and build-your-own-bowls,” O’Boyle says.
The menu at Freestyle Poke will offer two bowl sizes: a regular ($9.95) and a large ($13.95). Guests will pick the size of their bowl and then either choose a signature bowl or build their own.
If you build your own, you’ll start with a base for the bowl, like sushi or wild rice, mixed greens, quinoa or shredded vegetables like carrot, daikon radish and cucumber with baby gem lettuce. Proteins are next, featuring a mix of both raw or cooked fish like tuna, salmon, shrimp and other proteins like tofu, eggs, beef or chicken.
Next, you’ll select a marinade to dress your protein, such as Sriracha ponzu or the truffle-yuzu ponzu. Top that with your choice of vegetable mix-ins from a long list, then add textural toppings like wasabi toasted coconut, spicy cashews, togarashi chili spice, kimchi or seaweed salad.
Finally, pick a sauce to dress the entire poké bowl from a long list including toasted sesame kewpie mayo and Avo-Coco, a mixture of avocado, coconut and jalapeño. All of the bowls served at Freestyle Poke will be gluten-free, and the bowls can easily be customized for specific dietary needs. Dupin says is it this flexibility that makes poke so versatile and popular. “Everyone can enjoy it their way,” he says.
Demolition on the new restaurant space is already underway, and Dupin expects to introduce Kansas City to Freestyle Poke by mid-May.