Thursday, 29 March 2018 11:22

Poke-ing Fun: A chat with Keith Allard of Wikiwiki

Written by  Nick Macksood
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Above: Wikiwiki Signature Dishes | Below: Wicked Ingredients Above: Wikiwiki Signature Dishes | Below: Wicked Ingredients Photo: Courtesy | Illustrations: Kaylee Van Tuinen

This month, we sat down with Keith Allard, proprietor of Wikiwiki Poke Shop, Grand Rapids’ first of the kind. At the risk of rambling, I will briefly say that Wikiwiki is as singular a dining experience as I’ve ever seen in this town. Playfully serious, the atmosphere Allard’s crew has curated feels like a meme Instagram page opened a restaurant. And it’s good. I shamelessly heaped the contents of my “La The Darkbowl” onto Migos’ Sour Cream and Ranch flavored Rap Snacks and just could not believe how well the two paired. Before Wikiwiki, that sentence would have been grammatically correct, but semantically useless. With Wikiwiki, it could just be lunch.

 

The first thing that comes to my mind when I enter: here’s this menu with all these foreign objects. And nobody knows what they are, myself included!

Even me, in some respects! Sometimes we’ll get shipments in, and I’ll open something up and just think, ‘What in the name of God is this?’ But we’ve been really lucky with the help from some of the Asian supermarkets around town. Asian Delight on 44th and Breton, Kim Nam supermarket on Division Street. The Asian immigrant community has helped us out tremendously. We walked into Kim Nam market last week and the woman runs out like, ‘Oh, it’s the Wiki boys!’ She goes, ‘Look what I have for you!’ And she’s got four cases of our favorite furikake just waiting for us. … We could not do it without the Asian markets in Grand Rapids.

 

Well, you’re about two months in now. How’s GR’s first poke bar going?

We’re already one of the top 15 sushi bars in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio in terms of the amount of fish that
we sell, which was just huge for us, and we’re at 1,200 square feet. But it’s such an awesome problem to have because for our customers, the fish is so fresh. We go through things so fast that nothing sits in our coolers overnight.

 

That’s why there’s a bit of a wait sometimes.

We try and do everything the right way and make sure that everyone gets a perfect bowl. We will sacrifice speed to make sure our quality and prices are good. I know that means there are long lines or it takes 30 minutes to get your order during our peak times, but I hope that people recognize that we want it to be perfect every time, whether you come in on a Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. or a Friday night at 7 p.m.

 

Well, that creates a kind of cult demand, doesn’t it?

It’s a nightmare for us in the kitchen! We look out that little window and sometimes we just want to cry. Sometimes people hear some very choice words, but hopefully the rap music covers it up. We make probably 120 pounds of sushi rice every day, and it’s not easy — we only have two plugs in our kitchen. But even still, we will not sacrifice quality to get it done right, in the signature Wikiwiki fashion.

 wicked ingredients

Explain that “fashion” a little more. To me, Wikiwiki feels like the anti-restaurant.

It is the anti-restaurant! We have no uniform, we don’t have schedules, we have zero recipes written down. We prep everything, every natural vegetable every single day, because that’s where I think the freshness comes in. You know the fish came in that morning. You know the vegetables are all cut and done that day. We run out of little things all the time because we’re so laser focused on the food.

 

And the music in here is pretty distinct, too.

That was rule number one: The people in the restaurant had to listen to whatever the cooks want to listen to. Today, that means we start with Taylor Swift, move to R. Kelly, then gangster rap around 3 p.m. when we really need that boost before dinnertime. But we try our best to give creature comforts.

 

And Rap Snacks.

And Rap Snacks! I am proud to say that we are now officially the largest retailer of Rap Snacks in Michigan.

 

And octopus, too, from what you were saying?

Yeah, we sell more octopus than any restaurant in Michigan, which blows my mind. That particular bowl is called La The Darkbowl. We named it after a Grand Rapids rapper named La The Darkman. It’s our house-made kimchi, which is super funky, lots of curry and chillies, dried shrimp, fermented squid in it and then it gets tossed with the octopus and gochujang, which is like Korean barbecue sauce. It’s become our third most popular bowl. It’s really nice that people trust us enough to try new things.

 

Yeah, it’s cool to see Grand Rapids embrace foods that are highly unrecognizable.

And we expected that our key demographic would be like 30 or less, and instead we’ve found our biggest clientele to be 50 to 65 years old. I think there is the health aspect. We have people who are on heart-friendly, Mediterranean diets and they want a tasty way to eat fish that’s not fried or anything like that, but it really stuns me. I did not expect to look out on a Friday night and see a restaurant full of people my parents’ age ordering Gucci sushi bowls and Raekwon’s and Ghostface Killah’s and stuff like that! You know?

‘I’ll have the Gucky Sushi Bowl.’
‘It’s actually Gucci!’
‘And can I get a side of the Lil’ Boosie Rap Snacks?’
It’s like, ‘All right, we’ll do our best!’

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