Who are they: Joey Lee and Vannessa Lee
Role: Founders of Poke Theory
When siblings Joey and Vannessa Lee opened the doors to Poke Theory back in July 2016, they had no idea they would be one of the leaders to spearhead the poke – pronounced poh-kay – movement in Singapore, especially not when they didn’t commit a single cent to PR efforts in its infancy.
Six years later with 15 local outlets and a couple of international franchises to boot, the brother-and-sister duo clue us in on the evolution of their food concept, how they work together in a family business, and what’s next for Poke Theory in the coming years.
1. What are your hobbies?
Vannessa: Hiking, exploring farmers markets, cooking and spending time with my toddler! I’m embracing full mum mode at the moment.
Image credit: @feedvannessa
Joey: Soccer, poker nights, gaming, working my way through a self-renewing list of restaurants to check out (both local and international), and cooking for loved ones.
2. What is your favourite movie or TV show, and why?
V: I really enjoyed Schitt’s Creek and Superstore for a laugh recently but don’t have hard favourites.
J: I love TV shows that have the budget and/or production effort of movies. I love Billions for how cerebral the scripting gets, and how I could still find myself still picking up new innuendos and double entendres even when watching it for the second time. Then again on the flip side, Family Guy never fails to crack me up even after 20 seasons, so clearly I have polarised preferences haha.
I’m still resisting the urge to start the latest season of Rick & Morty – only discovered it thanks to VPN-ing my Netflix account to Australia – till I’m done rewatching all the previous seasons for the third time. The absurdity of each episode really cracks me up.
3. To Joey: Three words you’d use to describe Vannessa
J: Talented, empathetic, fiery.
4. To Vannessa: Three words you’d use to describe Joey
V: Logical, steadfast, grounded.
5. Tell us a fun fact about yourselves that your colleagues might not know
V: I come off as a hippie, healthy boss but I really love fake cheese. The yellow goo that Americans use and call cheese is the furthest thing from actual cheese. I love shitty mac and cheese made with said fake cheese.
J: After over 10 years since my last game of Dota, I recently got a full desktop setup that is solely intended for my great return to the game that once got me in a lot of trouble in my student days. My return has not been as great as I had envisioned, and I’m currently still picking up more foreign swear words than anticipated.
6. When was the first time you had a poke bowl?
V: When Joey made a bowl for me while experimenting with recipes for our poke bowls.
J: While wandering Venice Beach when I was doing my poly internship in Los Angeles. I didn’t even know what a poke bowl was, I was just wondering what the hell people were queuing up for from this hole-in-a-wall spot with a signboard titled Poke Poke.
7. What inspired you two to start Poke Theory?
V: Silly childhood dreams to run a food business together? Hahaha. Not so silly now!
J: It was a conscientious decision to do a business instead of continuing to pursue my fleeting dreams of being a magazine writer, largely fueled by a wasted year in attempting junior college. I didn’t want to lag behind my peers any longer, and this felt like a possible way out (although risky). Before we knew it, we were spooning poke into our mouths and aligning my ORD date with when Vann would be tendering her resignation letter LOL.
Image credit: @buttergoggles
11. What is your go-to poke bowl order?
V: I get very excited when people ask me this because I could literally eat poke bowls every single day until I die and be satisfied. My go-to would be: Original Shoyu Salmon tossed in Spicy Garlic Sesame sauce, carrots, Japanese cucumber, wakame seaweed, pickled beetroot, kimchi, furikake, fried shallots, tobiko on lemon herb quinoa, with extra sauce drizzled on top.
J: Original Shoyu Salmon absolutely drowned in Spicy Garlic Sesame sauce – founders hack: look for the sauce bar that we’ve brought back post-covid to unlock this option – on sushi rice, with cherry tomatoes, Japanese cucumber, extra honey pineapple, wakame seaweed, pomegranate, sweet onion and jalapeno relish, spice roasted cashews, lime avocado and tobiko.
If I’m building you a bowl, and you can take spice, I build this exact bowl and I’ll know that I’ll have converted a new customer before you’re even halfway through the bowl.
12. What is the weirdest way you’ve heard someone pronounce “poke”?
V: I cringe so hard when people pronounce it literally as “Poke”. Like when you poke a person with your finger.
J: Yep, it has been over six years of recoiling whenever we hear it. I always tell people it’s like pronouncing “okay”, but with a “p” in front. Otherwise, it’s like “kaypoh”, but flipping the order of the syllables.
8. What’s a day like for you two at Poke Theory?
V: We both used to be involved heavily in the day-to-day running of the business for 6 years and have only stepped out of it recently. I still oversee my marketing team and keep an eye on operations, but am able to focus more on bigger-picture strategies with Joey now.
Every day is different! Ranging from branding deep dives to business strategy discussions, to the more mundane things like payroll and helping my team edit photos in Lightroom for fun when I can.
Image credit: @feedvannessa
J: Yeah, it used to be us actively paving every step of the way after setting the goals for the upcoming months, but now we can set the goals and our teams know what needs to be done to move forward, only engaging us for overarching questions.
It’s a lot less hectic and if I intend to clear up my emails for the day, or work on some food R&D, I don’t find myself needing to tear myself away every other hour to tend to a random situation that has cropped up.
9. What were some challenges you faced during the early days of Poke Theory?
V: Lack of sleep. I think back and laugh now because I had a whole lot less sleep when I had a newborn baby during a pandemic and continued to work 5 days after giving birth. Do not recommend the latter. But in all seriousness, we took on so much on our own that a year or two later, it took a toll on our mental health and we had to overcome that.
J: We were seriously out of depth with so many things, and there were so many moments where we had no way of knowing if what was happening was a norm in the industry or if it absolutely wasn’t – from renovation timelines to supplier negotiations and appropriate work-life balance.
Heck, we spent a while trying to figure out even how profitable we ought to be at this and that point of the business. It was truly the wild wild west, especially for us in our early twenties and before having peers to benchmark against. That same freedom can be what constricts you at the very same time.
10. What is your favourite thing about being your own boss?
V: I love the flexibility in terms of your day-to-day schedule. I can start work at 7.30am and end by 4pm if I don’t have meetings, and just be checking my WhatsApp as needed until late.
J: I like the moments when I learn or think of something new and want to implement it into the business because it’s within my control to do so right away. I don’t have the problem of not having the power to do so, then rueing the fact that someone else stood in the way of bettering the business simply because I wasn’t being taken seriously enough.
All the glory or the shame of the decisions made, we accept it all. It works better as I have Vann to share it with though; it could get quite intense if not.
13. How has it been being business partners with your sibling?
Image credit: @buttergoggles
V: It was harder at the start when we were younger, fierier, and lacked tact in communication with each other because we’re comfortable as a family. I’ve never hated it, but can confidently say I love it even more now. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, trust each other and make all the big decisions together on equal standing.
J: I think the beautiful thing is that we both want the best for each other, and that means we’re not constantly looking over our shoulder to make sure we aren’t getting the short end of the stick. After balancing it out over time, and knowing what both our fortes are, what our loves and hates are, what we have now is something that we both will be able to steer together as we progress through different stages of our lives.
14. What was the most memorable moment of your career?
V: When we came into the local food scene and went viral back in the day, kickstarting the poke trend in Singapore. We never spent a cent on PR and yet were in every online and offline media publication. Doing that and then being present at every store opening, watching long snaking queues of customers outside stores, I always got a bit emotional and had to walk away for a minute to compose myself before going back to do social media coverage. It’s hard to believe we and our team did all that – and we were so young, just 22 and 24 then.
J: There are honestly countless ones, but I’ll never forget the morning of our very first outlet’s opening when I was walking out of the kitchen. I had been in the kitchen from 7am working on as much prep as possible, despairing over the different premium toppings I was trying to prepare in time for the 11am opening hour. Nobody really knew, but the kitchen during that time was my only window of escapism, where I didn’t need to feel and come to terms with embarrassment if we were going to be completely empty and swatting flies throughout lunch rush, while every other shop around us filled up to the brim.
We could have planned however much we wanted, but that first day could be enough for all our plans to go straight out the window if it was an absolute failure. At 10.15am, it was time to start moving things out to the front, no matter how much I was afraid to face the reality. I hugged the first tub of salmon cubes out, unsure how much of it was going to go to waste that day, what I’d be telling our part-timers when it’d be time to address the elephant in the room that was the massive amounts of food wastage, and almost dropped the tub when I saw a queue outside our door, extending out onto the road.
I remember staring at it, then locking eyes with Vann, and having that feeling of compression in my lungs, the kind you get when you’re on the verge of bursting into tears, before going into a blustering babble about how she didn’t tell me we were going to be having a queue. That moment when it tipped from uncertain despair with what we had at stake, to a feeling of uncontainable excitement on how this could be the start of a marvellous new chapter in our lives I’ll never ever forget, regardless of what happens in the future.
15. How has Poke Theory evolved from when you first started to now?
Image credit: Joey Lee
J: We’ve gone from our flagship brick-and-mortar outlet in the CBD and taken strides as we set up our franchise model and kicked off the very first franchise outlet. We successfully opened outlets in the heartlands, set up our central kitchen, and become a part of the Commonwealth Capital group of brands.
With a central kitchen and office now for our core team, a couple of outlets in Indonesia, and more recently, an import/export permit to bring in our own disposables from overseas, we’re resuming our ambitions of expanding overseas. We have our fingers crossed for Malaysia next!
16. To Vannessa: How has managing Poke Theory from Melbourne been like for you? Any advice you’d like to give fellow long-distance entrepreneurs?
V: It’s been pretty sweet! I used to fly back to Singapore every 2-3 months but that changed once the pandemic hit and I became a mum. I was working from home before working from home became normal life during the pandemic. Facetime and Skype were super essential and now we have Zoom. Most of my work could be done remotely as well.
I think long-distance entrepreneurs find their own groove, but what is crucial to me is very close and frequent communication with your team and being on top of managing their workload – so you’re never lost and it is as if you’re there with them all the time as a strong leader.
17. Besides your own restaurants, what is one eatery you’ll recommend to people visiting Singapore?
V: I think everyone should have Ya Kun kaya toast..it’s always a necessary pit stop for me whenever I fly back for a visit.
J: I think the Hokkien mee at the Super Mummy Carrot Cake & Hokkien Mee stall in Chinatown Complex is the most underrated hawker stall ever. I’m a huge Hokkien mee lover, and if I didn’t have to watch what I’m eating at all, I’d be at this stall all the time. It’s just the right amount of stickiness, reduced from a flavourful stock base, and the chilli. It’s the absolute best.
18. What is the next big food trend you think Singaporeans will adopt?
V: I think the shift towards healthy eating has been gradually adopted over the last 8-10 years. But we’re going to see a big shift towards climate-conscious food and products catered towards niche, under-served markets like vegans and keto-diet consumers explode into the mainstream market as the new “healthy alternatives”.
In fact, you can’t even call the vegan market an underserved market anymore because of how plant-based food has absolutely just taken off. It started with meat alternatives and soon we’ll even be seeing vegan egg alternatives being the new common plant-based product.
Products like Magic Spoon cereal – a high protein, low-carb cereal that tastes just like your favourite Froot Loops or CocoPops – the incredulous many types of oat, almond, and even potato milk available now and much more will serve a much broader, mass market in time to come.
J: We’ll probably start seeing more and more modern spin-offs on our local food as our hawker generation starts to fade off. Those that figure out how to persuade people to spend $10-$15 for their take on a $4 local dish will create a much more sustainable business model than becoming a hawker and probably end up becoming a stalwart in the industry after cementing a foothold in a space with little direct competitors.
19. What advice do you have for those thinking of starting their own restaurant?
V: Think about whether your goal is to build a legacy brand or a mom-and-pop restaurant. Branding is everything if you’re out to conquer international markets and have investors come knocking at your door. And of course, run your numbers right. I’m bad at that but that’s why I have Joey.
J: And remember to weigh the risk-reward ratio. You only hear about the nice stories but look below and be cognisant that they rest on a mountain of skeletons.
20. What do you hope to achieve at Poke Theory over the next year? Are there any upcoming developments you would like to draw our attention to?
V: We’re near the cap for the Singapore market in terms of locations and are expanding our local business horizontally instead of vertically. Overseas, we are looking to enter the Malaysia market by mid-2023 and potentially expand further in the Indonesia market too.
We also have exciting brand and marketing plans in the works, with something special coming up that will see us roving around Singapore, serving our rainbow bowls at tertiary institutions and business parks. Stay tuned!
This post is part of The Local Spotlight series. If you’d like to be featured, or have a nominee in mind, please drop us a note at [email protected].
Cover image credit: Joey & Vannessa Lee