Good vibrations radiate from a snackin’ shop at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in the heart of the Artery District. Located in a former pharmacy building, Aloha Snacks has stolen appetites as the go-to spot for fresh Hawaiian-style bites.
Owner Jesse Wykle has nearly two decades of experience in the kitchen — most notably known in fine dining — and he found himself pursuing a juxtaposed notion of fine products on paper plates. With a desire to appeal to palates of all kinds, Aloha Snacks was built on approachable cuisine. “We wanted to have something for everyone — from the hamburger eater to tuna lovers and vegan to gluten-free,” Jesse explains.
We had a barside chat with Jesse about this relaxed and fast-casual oasis and the road that led him here. Let’s dig in!
How It All Began
At the start of college, Jesse moved down to Mississippi to write about the blues. His college career started as a journalism major at the University of Ole Miss, until he was swept away by the food scene. “I have been cooking for almost 19 years,” he shares. From Louisiana to Texas to Arkansas, his passions for well-crafted cuisine began flourishing in restaurant dining rooms across the south. Jesse earned a degree in hospitality and hotel restaurant management, which he first put to use at the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia where he began perfecting his culinary chops.
With a move back to Virginia Beach, Jesse grew his experience and undoubted talents at restaurants around town, including Eurasia and Zoe’s, where he served as Executive Chef. “[During this time] we were doing a lot of Chinese hot mustard and spring rolls. It was super fun. Those flavors were parallel to southern flavors as a southern boy. Then, we got stuck on ginger and seared tuna,” he explains.
After over a decade in the fine dining scene, Jesse found himself chasing a new culinary endeavor to bring more culture to Virginia Beach, inspired by the flavors of our Hawaiian islands. He shares, “I opened Aloha Snacks to allow myself to relax. I knew it would be the toughest challenge ever but you need to learn how to create a fun and relaxing environment.”
The Aloha Snacks Experience
“We want [Aloha Snacks] to be an escape. Come in and feel the good vibes over a plate or bowl of delicious food,” Jesse says.
Step into Aloha Snacks — you will see vibrant nautical colors adorning the walls, you will hear beats of a multi-genre soundtrack and you will taste the sweetness of poke or the savoriness of an Hawaiian Cowboy burger. The vibe is uniquely relaxed, inviting guests to dine inside or hit the drive-thru window.
In the Kitchen
Jesse and his wife, Ashley, spent time in Hanalei Bay on the northern coast of Kauai, Hawaii. “A lot of the items on our menu were token to dishes my wife had in Hanalei Bay,” Jesse shares. Thus, many of Aloha Snacks’ menu items bring back memories of the delicious flavors from their time in the Aloha State. Jesse continues, “We have a lot of traditional items as well as contemporary items they have in Hawaii. Our Va Loco Moco is to the likes of ‘their’ loco moco, which was invented in 1950, yet we created a more localized and contemporary spin.” The Loco Moco is pure comfort food made with a bed of rice and a burger patty drizzled in gravy topped with a spam fried egg. The menu’s classic choice is Tuna Poke, a dish native to Hawaii, made with fresh tuna, avocado, sticky rice, dragon sauce, scallions, cilantro, seaweed, wasabi peas and gochujang. Need we say more? Beyond the bowls are gnarly burgers, sandwiches and wraps you can’t find anywhere else in town.
The dishes are created with ingredients sourced in Virginia — the greens, ground beef, heirloom tomatoes, farm eggs, herbs and even their liquor and beer.
Each menu item is packed with flavor. As for Jesse’s takeaway for each guest, “I hope people feel how special it is – the originality and freshness of the food. I think that is going to speak to you. Come in to visit for relaxation, good vibes and delicious food.”
In the midst of a global pandemic, everything has changed as we know it for small businesses. “We have tried to mold ourselves towards more to-go friendly food, and we are staying on top of sanitation,” Jesse explains. With the importance of people keeping a safe distance and wearing masks, Aloha Snacks continues to evolve to best serve guests while keeping everyone safe.
“Community is everything. We are family. Ohana is the family way of life,” Jesse shares. This notion is the soul of Aloha Snacks. Community collaboration sparks new ideas and fuels their creativity. For example, after running out of spam (a key Aloha ingredient), Jesse started making their own from scratch. Pizza Chapel reached out interested in trying it as a new topping on their pizzas. A recent collab with Bay Local led to a limited edition pineapple buffalo sauce. As of late, a partnership was born with Farmhouse Brewing Co. with the release of the Rick Flair Strawberry Gose (coming soon!).
In the spirit of family, Jesse shares how instrumental his wife, Ashley, has been in running Aloha Snacks — from menu inspiration to design and aesthetic. “She is my sounding board. She is the best support system, and it is always fun to have our two kids involved too.”
Daily operations and good vibes wouldn’t be possible without the talent and help of his team. “I am so proud of my hardworking staff and managers,” Jesse says.
Proudest Moment & Biggest Obstacle
Jesse’s proudest moment with Aloha Snacks came one year after opening. “Finishing the first year and establishing rapport was a huge accomplishment. I knew once we opened people would love it.” Additionally, he speaks to the juxtaposition of Aloha Snacks to other restaurants he’s worked at in the area. “In my previous restaurant experiences, we would get people twice a year for a celebratory occasion. But I want to get them twice a week, making it approachable to all. That’s the difference.”
As the industry goes, the biggest obstacle as the owner of Aloha Snacks is staffing and training the team. Even more so with the response to COVID-19 and the importance of keeping their team and the community safe. Jesse explains, “It has been so crazy.”
Advice for Aspiring Business Owners
As you consider starting your own business or pursuing a new endeavor, Jesse advises having fun with it. “Have fun! And know problems will arise but you need to be able to laugh things off.”
Future Goals + Happenings
Aloha Snacks has a handful of exciting upgrades on the way. The side deck is going to have a roof over top to provide ample shade during the warmer months. A pergola is in the works for the front of the shop to allow for easy ordering and pick up. And, the fun is getting amped up with a foosball table and other games to boot.
In other news, keep your eye out for Jesse on the big screen this fall! In October, he will be featured on Food Network’s ‘Beat Bobby Flay.’ The competition heats up to the tune of a ukulele, and let’s just say you will want to see Jesse work his magic in the kitchen against celebrity chef, Bobby Flay.
How to Experience All That Aloha Snacks Has to Offer
Now, you must be hungry! Craving a burger, tuna poke or loaded clockwise fries? Dine in, pick up or drive-thru at Aloha Snacks to enjoy a bite of Hawaiian-influenced cuisine with a side of relaxation. If you want to order ahead, give them a call at 757-428-POKE or place an order online. Keep up with the good vibes on Instagram and Facebook too.