For a dining space of just three-hundred square feet, Zen Fish Poke Bar has a whole lot of good vibes, and when you meet the restaurant’s owner, Janet Lee, you’ll understand why. Janet is a whirlwind of energy, but in the best possible way. She welcomes her employees with hugs, asks her vendors about their day while she’s signing checks, and greets every customer with a smile. Janet, who grew up in Los Angeles and earned her MMS at Duke, first had the vision for Zen Fish in 2013. She wanted to combine her business savvy, her love for Hawaii (she travels there frequently to visit her best friend), and her love of bringing people together into a single independent business. In 2017, she opened Zen Fish on Ninth Street, a community-minded restaurant with Hawaiian poke as its muse.
Poke means “diced up” or “cubed up” in Hawaiian and it traditionally refers to a salad made of raw, marinated tuna. At Zen Fish, everything is cubed and chopped, from the raw fish to the sweet potatoes. While the restaurant is traditionally Hawaiian, Janet “really want[ed] to create a space that’s for everyone.” That’s why the restaurant offers all kinds of options: vegan and vegetarian, gluten-free, and for people who don’t want raw fish, there are cooked options, too.
Currently, Janet’s favorite menu item is the vegan bowl because so many of its veggies come straight straight from local farms. This month, the restaurant is serving radishes, beet greens, zucchini, and sweet potatoes from Funny Girl Farm and pea shoots from Mama Springs. From Eastern Carolina Organics, she receives produce from a variety of NC producers, including zucchini from Hendersonville and jalapeños from Bailey Farms. The Zen Fish tuna comes from the Carolina Coast whenever possible, and the salmon comes from a supplier that uses aqua culturing on Faroe Island. There’s a good deal of ambiguity when it comes to sustainable fishing practices, but Janet makes every effort to make sustainable choices as often as she can. No matter what, she makes sure that all of her fish is certified sustainable. Janet is also proud that everything used at Zen Fish is compostable, from the forks to the bowls her customers eat out of. Zen Fish composts with locally owned Food FWD and is also a participating restaurant with Durham Green to Go. Janet personally volunteers with the Club Boulevard Elementary School’s composting program, where students are learning to compost their leftover breakfast and lunch food.
Janet’s own roots in Durham go back to graduate school at Duke, and her husband was born and raised here. When she first met him, he lived right up the street from the Zen Fish Durham location! Janet’s husband is a financial advisor by day but helps out at the restaurant by night. Janet says that his incredible support and awesome work ethic have played a huge part in making the restaurant successful. It’s also his longtime roots in Durham that have inspired Janet to give back to this community in tangible ways by supporting local farms, local artists, and other local small businesses. Local artist Alcrist Moretta created the restaurant's beautiful wall mural and Zen Succulent, a local plant and home goods shop, supplies the plants that liven the walls. Zen Fish is hoping to expand by franchising, and Janet is very clear on her franchising goals: she is looking to work with like-minded people who are on board with supporting the community. Her franchise locations will be required to have at least four items on their menus from local growers and at least one item that comes directly from Durham. She’d also like those franchises, like her current locations, to run initiatives that support the larger community. Last year, Zen Fish donated one-hundred percent of the profits from their candied gingers to Duke Children’s Hospital (they also matched the amount earned). Other recipients have included NC Equality, the National Park System, and the Jane Goodall Institute.
So, why the name Zen Fish? The fish part is obvious, but Zen comes from Janet’s love for yoga, a practice that has helped her to manage and even shed some of the anxiety she has struggled with for years. Part of the mission of Zen Fish is to create a place where everyone feels welcome and included, a place where positivity abounds, and eventually, a place where people can come to find resources that enrich their lives. She is currently looking for an inspirational speaker to talk about mental health issues in her Morrisville location and she hopes to host even more events that speak to the power of positivity and the power of community.
Throughout Zen Fish, there are signs meant to encourage patrons: “Just keep swimming,” “Do all things with love.” There’s also the Grateful Wall, a place for employees and patrons to write down what they are grateful for. The comments change every day, and whether the notes left there are serious or silly, they always help Janet remember to keep smiling, even when things are busy and intense. “Grateful” is also the name of one of the Zen Fish signature bowls, along with “Kindness,” “Compassion,” and “Courageous.” As it turns out, these are not just fun names for poke bowls - they are also the words Janet lives by.
When she’s not at one of the two Zen Fish locations, you might find Janet:
Doing yoga or travelling with 109 World, a humanitarian organization that incorporates yoga and giving back, because you have to feed yourself before you can help others.
Watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Bourdain was one of Janet’s big role models.
Engaging in a meaningful conversation. Janet believes that Zen Fish is thriving because of its focus on human connection. Honesty, authenticity, and a good support system are the tools of the trade she can’t live without.