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Mark Setterington of Island Fin Poke: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated”

Treat others the way you would like to be treated — Each guest is a visitor in our house. You greet them with a warm welcome and a fond farewell when they leave. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing […]

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Treat others the way you would like to be treated — Each guest is a visitor in our house. You greet them with a warm welcome and a fond farewell when they leave.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Setterington.

Mark is a restauranteur, entrepreneur, and co-founder of growing franchise Island Fin Poke. After working in the restaurant industry for 36 years and overseeing 10 restaurants throughout Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Setterington and his co-founder, Paul Reas, decided to launch Island Fin Poke to bring guests high-quality poke in an immersive tropical environment. The duo’s first location opened in Orlando, and over the past three years Island Fin Poke has grown to nine locations across five states, with more on the way.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

In 2004, I was the General Manager of a Bahama Breeze in Orlando, where I met my future business partner, Paul Reas. We immediately grew very close and our kids grew up together, and while we loved the culture of Bahama Breeze, we always dreamed of starting our own restaurant. Over the course of the next few years, I moved to Las Vegas and began overseeing restaurants in both Vegas and LA. In 2016, Paul texted me that he had quit his job and he was ready to make our restaurant happen. My Vegas kitchen quickly became ground zero for poke. Our friends and family gathered to taste test sauces that we were making from scratch. The house was never short on visitors when there were poke tasting parties. Over the course of the next few months, the creation of the house-made sauces was completed, and we developed Island Fin Poke to bring guests high-quality poke in an immersive tropical environment. We launched our first location in Winter Springs, Florida in 2017 and have been expanding ever since.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The one that comes to mind every time is Alan Palmieri from Bahama Breeze. Back when I was with Bahama Breeze it was all about culture. I thought I knew everything about restaurants but what Alan taught was so much more. With Alan the story was always the same: The team, the guest, the stakeholder. No one more important than the other. He never deviated from this belief and that has come with me everywhere I have gone.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Our brand is incredibly experiential. Everything we do, from the front door and the entry of the guest (we don’t have customers), and to their exit, they are treated as if they were a guest in our home. This has become even more important in this environment because every guest has a choice. We want to personalize each guest’s experience just like each guest can personalize their own poke bowl. Our experience, service, and food needs to inspire them to return.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

It has to come from the top. PERIOD! If my team happens to see me not go above and beyond in an interaction then I just set the bar to a new level of low. The leader has to be the one to not only set the standard but uphold it for every member of the team to see. As companies grow and executives get further removed from the front lines, they forget where they came from. Sad really. As we grow, we will take on infrastructure to ensure that I can continue to do what I enjoy, ensuring the guest experience.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

There is so much competition already. I don’t think anything can force a company to improve; service has to be a choice. No one can make you have a “being of service” mentality. If you fail to provide good service to your guests, you will see the effects firsthand. Whether it’s negative reviews or a lack of sales, these things may put pressure on a company to do better but the only way to improve the guest experience is by building a company with people who truly want to provide that positive experience from start to finish. You can make as many changes as you want to try to improve sales or reviews, but if you don’t have a team of people with the right mentality, then you’ll always fall short.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

We have several franchisees that were originally guests in the restaurant. Every experience every time is to dazzle the guests and make them feel like they are a part of the “Ohana.” Some of our franchisees truly resonated that sense of family, so they wanted to open up their own location and become an even bigger part of the ohana.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

The long-term effect is that our brand is quickly growing across the country. People just connect to our concept. We are not just a business that is in it to make profit, we want to foster positive relationships and provide a great experience for everyone, including our franchisees. When we work with prospective franchisees who are interested in our brand, we make that clear right from the beginning. Most recently, we opened a location in Oviedo, Florida, which is owned by a long-time guest who frequented our original Winter Springs location. She ate at our restaurant multiple times a week, and each time she came back we got to know her even better. She chose to open up her own location because she already felt like she was a part of our family.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Treat others the way you would like to be treated — Each guest is a visitor in our house. You greet them with a warm welcome and a fond farewell when they leave.
  2. The team, the guest and the stakeholders are equal — If you treat your team poorly, they will treat your guest poorly and your business will suffer. It is quite simple.
  3. There are no shortcuts to success — If covid has taught us anything, it is this: Even during times of crisis, stay the course. Other brands have recently implemented covid surcharges, price increases, etc., but people will remember how you treated them when the going got tough.
  4. Practice what you preach — I know this sounds basic but you are always being watched as a leader. Your team, your guest, the community. You have to live the values that you have as a company, they cannot be just words on paper.
  5. How you deliver a product is just as important as the product itself — We pride ourselves on serving always fresh, ethically sourced ingredients and add-ins made with care in-house. With such a high-quality offering, the service needs to match. Walking the guest through the options, explaining choices, or even offering advice on what to try shows the guest that their experience is tailored to them specifically.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

The best thing they can do is share a review or post on social media. That is king right now and people listen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think the most important thing is to be grateful and show gratitude. You need to go out of your way to be appreciative of what you have and always be thinking of what you can do to show others how much you appreciate them and their contributions.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/company/island-fin-poke-company/
https://www.facebook.com/Ifpcwintersprings/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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