Text by Marah Eakin
Images by Sho Nimura
When Sweetfin began slinging poke in Santa Monica in 2015, it was part of the first wave of establishments bringing the Hawaiian delicacy to the states. According to Sweetfin co-founder Brett Nestadt, at the time there was only one other restaurant making poke in Los Angeles, and the risk inherent in being the second made him a little nervous. Nestadt and his co-founders, Alan Nathan and Seth Cohen, had spent almost two years getting ready to open their first restaurant, formulating the menu with former “Top Chef” contestant Dakota Weiss and sourcing sustainable ingredients and a beautiful interior. But would anyone come?
“The night before we opened, I was panicking that no one would show up,” says Nestadt. “I was like ‘what am I doing?’ Thankfully, that first day we ended up with lines out the door and we had to close because we ran out of food, and it felt like a great success.”
Santa Monica, Nestadt says, always seemed like the perfect location to launch the first Sweetfin, in part because of its proximity to the ocean. Sweetfin’s founders liked the idea of selling their fish as close to the beach as possible, and they liked the walkable, neighborhood-like community that the city provided. As Nestadt puts it, “You don’t get more quintessentially California than Santa Monica.”
Almost a decade after Nestadt, Nathan, and Cohen started Sweetfin, the business is thriving, in part because of its California focus. The group has opened 14 restaurants—just about two a year—and all are within a couple hours of Los Angeles. Sweetfin is also centrally held, and hasn’t given out any franchise licenses,partly because Nestadt and company want to make sure the restaurant’s quality is both consistent and sustainable.
The fast casual restaurant has also made its mark in an increasingly crowded poke market by focusing on what Nestadt calls “California inspired poke.” While Hawaiian poke is meant to be a sort of side dish enjoyed alongside a number of other foods, Sweetfin is aiming to make it the forefront of a diner’s meal. Nestadt says he and his co-founders were influenced not just by Hawaiian flavors, but by a number of sushi rolls that were birthed here in California.
“We’re taking the California produce and the California flavors and this melting pot of different cuisines and putting it into our poke,” says Nestadt. That fusion of cultures is also evident in each location’s design, which Nestadt designs by blending Japanese, Scandinavian, and beach-inspired aesthetics to create spaces that are full of beautiful natural wood, ocean blues and foamy whites, high ceilings and airy furniture.
Interestingly, Nestadt’s background is in film, not design or hospitality. He moved to Los Angeles from South Africa, where he grew up, to attend the University of Southern California and got into the industry after graduation, but his dream was dashed pretty quickly when the prominent studio he was working for wouldn’t help him extend his work visa. Nestadt says he went back to school to extend his student visa, with the hope of getting back into movie making, but ended up finding the Sweetfin dream instead.
Part of Nestadt’s role in the company is inspired by what he learned working in film. He tackles not only designing the restaurant spaces, but also Sweetfin’s branding, something that’s been essential to its buzz-fueled growth.
We aren’t willing to downgrade our product. We have spent years working with our suppliers, selecting different fish and making sure that we can track all of it back to where it’s coming from.Brett Nestadt
Indeed, even the name Sweetfin was chosen with the restaurant’s brand in mind. The founders wanted the name to suggest what the restaurant sold, but they also wanted it to be easily searchable not just on Google but on social media. Nestadt says they chose the neologism of Sweetfin after testing out combinations of dozens, if not hundreds, of words.
Sweetfin knows that its product is a little high end for the fast casual market and has done what it can to make it worth the patron’s waller. All of the company’s fish is sustainably farmed and sourced, and when possible, the company works with local vendors and producers.
It’s something Sweetfin is passionate about, with Nestadt explaining, “We aren’t willing to downgrade our product. We have spent years working with our suppliers, selecting different fish and making sure that we can track all of it back to where it’s coming from.” He continues, “Our salmon, for example, is farm raised, and we want to make sure that the feed is organic and that they’re being kept in humane environments.”
“Anytime you’re talking about fishing, you are dealing with the possibility of overfishing, especially when there’s so much poke going on,” says Nestadt. “We try to lean on products where we can make sure that every single batch that we’re getting is from somewhere that we know and trust.”
With over 94 million different combinations possible from the Sweetfin menu, that takes a lot of work, but Nestadt says it’s ultimately worth it, especially since part of the company’s goal was to figure out how to make poke portable.
Now, Nestadt says, with Sweetfin, health and environmentally conscious customers can “grab a bowl, take a walk to the beach, sit down, and eat.”