Family Dinner Recap: Jack DeMar of Pono Ono, PicnicPosted on • Posted in Event Recaps
By: Elizabeth Savin ‘25
On Tuesday, May 2nd, Residents of The Garage gathered together for Family Dinner to hear from local founder, Jack DeMar. Jack is a staple of the Evanston community known for his successful fast-casual restaurants: Pono Ono, Picnic, and Mensch’s, a Jewish-style deli pop-up. He spoke to students about the process of opening these establishments as well as his future plans for an additional restaurant in the Evanston area.
Jack, a fourth-generation restaurant owner, discovered his passion for food early in life working at his family’s restaurant. He eventually enrolled in Northeastern University but found the curriculum was more focused on building start-ups rather than building restaurants. Jack then made the decision to take a leave of absence in order to hone his skills in an Italian restaurant. At the same time, he began to develop the business plan for his first restaurant, Pono Ono. “I wanted to serve food that is healthy, fun, and colorful,” shared Jack. He was inspired by the poke he ate while living in Hawaii for a year and knew that customers on the mainland would enjoy it just as much as he did. However, while he began taking the first steps to make Pono Ono a reality, Jack noticed numerous other poke restaurants appearing on the East and West coasts. Although it validated that his idea was a successful one, it also caused greater competition in the market.
He opened his location with a fixed menu showcasing traditional flavors. The first year was slow, offering minimal opportunities to scale. Soon after the first year, Jack decided to pivot and added the option to customize the bowls he served. This allowed customers to personalize their dish while still experiencing the traditional flavors of Hawaiian poke.
During Pono Ono’s first five years in operation, the retail space across the street remained empty. Around this time, Jack also noticed that there was still a gap in the market for healthy, fast-casual options in Evanston – especially salads. These factors combined led to the impetus of Picnic, Jack’s second restaurant. He began to negotiate his lease for the vacant space as well as creating mood boards for the restaurant. It was important to him to maintain ownership and control over the entire creative process – mocking up interior design layouts as well as potential logo designs. Additionally, he took his own photos of menu items to use in promotional materials and grew a sizable social media following prior to the restaurant’s official opening. Picnic opened in May of 2022 and is now a favorite spot for many Northwestern students and Evanston residents.
To end his presentation, Jack shared more about his latest endeavor, Mensch’s. Currently, Mensch’s is a pop-up running out of Picnic every Saturday and Sunday from 10 am – 2 pm. However, Jack is in lease negotiations to open a more permanent location for the smash hit that Mensch’s has become.
After hearing from Jack, students had dinner from Picnic and left Family Dinner excited to be involved in as many creative aspects of their startups as possible!
Elizabeth Savin ’25 is a Manufacturing and Design Engineering major from Wilmette, IL. She is a student aide at The Garage and was part of the Winter 2022 Propel cohort. She is excited to begin her own venture while learning more about entrepreneurship.