FLINT, Michigan -- Justin Bush and Jeron Dotson aren’t strangers to coincidences. As owners and creators of one of Flint’s newest eateries, The Poke Bowl, their journey is ripe with chance encounters, network connections, and being able to deliver something unique.
Poke—a Hawaiian- and Japanese-styled raw fish cuisine—serves as the inspiration for The Poke Bowl. The duo experienced the delicacy on a business trip to California and fell in love. When plans for a music video ended in failure, they found themselves reflecting and remembered trying poke. It was then Jeron suggested they bring poke to Flint.
From a pitch to Flint Soup to becoming a part of Genesee County’s Habitat for Humanity’s Work/Live project that is “expected to bring economic opportunity to the local community,” Justin, Jeron, and The Poke Bowl shine as a prime example of new opportunities in Flint.
The brothers spoke to Flintside about their experiences creating The Poke Bowl, the struggles behind the scenes, and success in a COVID-19 world.
Flintside: Poke and The Poke Bowl is something that Flint has never experienced. What inspired y’all to bring poke bowls to Flint?
Justin: “The idea came from California. We own another company called Black Gold Media. We were tryna to do a record label. We [originally] went out to California to shoot a music video. Jeron and I had never been to California, so we got an Uber and went to Venice beach on the last day. We realized we hadn't had any seafood and got on Google and found this little spot called The Poke Shack.”
Jeron: “It had enough room for maybe 15, 20 people. They looked at us like, 'Hey, you guys know what you're getting?' and started telling us the whole point of [poke is] health, convenience, and price. I ate it, and it was life-changing. I'm like, this is it. There's no reason it shouldn't be in Michigan. That was one of the last things we ended up eating while we were in California.”
Flintside: How did the connection with Flint Soup and Genesee County’s Habitat for Humanity come about?
Jeron: “My sister-in-law, she had a meeting with Adrian (Montague) and James (Shuttlesworth), co-founders of Flint Soup, and she put me on blast. I go and sit down, and I say, 'My brother and I want to bring a poke restaurant here to Flint.' Her eyes just lit up, and she said, 'I want you to come to our next competition.' Justin had the initiative to put in for the LLC, and my mom came up with the name The Poke Bowl.”
Justin: “At this point, it was just an idea, but we pitched it and won. After we won, [Flint Soup] put us in a network and into another pitch competition in Fenton. We won that one. We were simultaneously doing a business boot camp with another nonprofit organization called the Michigan Good Food Fund. Later, Flint Soup partnered with Habitat for Humanity, and that's when they came up with the Work/Live project.”
Jeron: “[Flint Soup] said Habitat for Humanity wanted to hear a pitch from us. The Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity at the time was looking for something new. I had to give the pitch by myself, and Justin came in right when they announced [us as] the winner.”
Flintside: It sounds like this was meant to be! What were some of the struggles?
Jeron: “We had never made a Poke Bowl before!”
Justin: “We won a lot of those competitions without ever making one. But Adrian grew up on all of this. She [gave] us ideas for poke bowls, different types of rice cookers we needed, and flavors.”
Jeron: “We had no idea where to get fresh fish, but we found a guy who owned a place in Howell, Michigan, called Oceanside. [Honestly], we did it backward. We developed an image before we even knew a profit margin.”
Justin: “2018 was our grind year. It forced us to get the business part done. We didn't know anything. We hadn't even sold a single bowl. That gave us time to get the business plan and [allowed us] to start making the bowls. It was a lot of trial and error. Everything was aligned in the right way.”
Flintside: You get the building, have the groundbreaking ceremony, and are preparing for the opening but COVID hits. How has business survived?
Jeron: “When COVID hit, we had five different events lined up. But an idea manifested that said go to the Local Grocer. We did a pop-up there, and from relationships we already had, they said it was good. We were putting in 15, 20 bowls, and they were selling out every week. Then we went to Grand Blanc, and Oliver T's fit the bill. Justin made the most beautiful poke bowl I've ever seen, and they said, 'We'll buy them upfront and sell them.' They all sold out within two days, and we're at a stable rate now. We're working on something else as well.”
Justin: “We're also [getting ready] to start delivering.”
Flintside: Through this incredible journey, how has this molded you and The Poke Bowl?
Jeron: “We see that our product is synchronized with our image. If we do something regarding our image, then we do something with our product. We have a couple of things coming out before the end of the year, a couple of different announcements.”
Justin: “We're humble. We let the moves speak for themselves. Normally when it's quiet, the moves that come after are loud enough to make up for all the loss.”
You can find The Poke Bowl on Facebook, Instagram, and at [email protected]. Deliveriess are now available.