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Poi Dog – When culture, innovation and food meet

Meet Poi Dog, a casual counter-service restaurant and food cart in Philadelphia, which grew from a food truck. “Poi Dog” is a pidgin term that refers to the mixed nature of hybrid Hawaii-style food, that also drew upon cultures that have heavily influenced the food of Hawaii–such as Filipino, Japanese and Portuguese. Poi Dog won ‘Time Out’ Philadelphia's Best Restaurant 2018, Philadelphia Magazine's Best Fried Chicken 2017, and Philadelphia Magazine's Best Food Truck 2014.

Fruits and drinks - Poi Dog, Philadelphia

My name is Kiki Aranita and I was born in New York, but I was raised in Hawaii and Hong Kong. Growing up, what I ate was really a blend of both cultures. I am a chef and owner of Poi Dog, a Philadelphia-based restaurant and catering company that has since been reinvented as a retail sauce company. The term ‘Poi dog’ means mixed breed or mutt, and that’s what I am.

Kiki Aranita - Poi Dog chef and owner

 

״The term ‘Poi dog’ means mixed breed or mutt, and that’s what I am.״

Tell us about your business journey

Due to the pandemic, I decided to close the restaurant. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’m now onto a new business venture of making a new line of Hawaiian-style sauces, including Maui Lavender Ponzu and Chile Peppah Water with the Poi Dog name. This sauce took about six months to develop. Now it’s grown into three sauces and we are hoping to continue developing even more.

When the pandemic started, I decided to close the restaurant. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.

Can you share a bit with us about your creation process?

Any recipe developer—from chefs at fine-dining establishments to leaders of fast-casual chains—knows that crafting the perfect recipe takes a long time and is an extensive process. In addition to being a large time investment, for me, a perfected recipe takes a large financial investment, in some cases requiring to travel across the world multiple times for the right inspiration and ingredients.

When the pandemic forced my restaurant to shut down and I began a new venture—developing my own line of Hawaii-inspired sauces—I gained a greater appreciation for how much work goes on behind the scenes in creating the perfect recipe. This includes the large financial toll it can take.

For many, recipe ideas stem from trips abroad or a recent meal. In my case however, several of my recipe ideas originated from my childhood in Hawaii Kai, a suburb of Honolulu. Hawaii Kai was an idyllic place to spend one’s childhood—a couple of miles away from Hanauma Bay, where my sister and I would swim in calm waters while fish nibbled at our toes. There is a Foodland supermarket at the halfway point between home and the road up the mountain to Hanauma Bay, and on weekends, the perfume of smoke and roasting chickens would reach our house. Huli Huli smoke was a siren call for us to line up in the Foodland parking lot, but also the backroads of Kaneohe and the edges of the swap meet at Aloha Stadium. All while knowing that our fingers would soon be oil-slicked and blackened, tearing into chicken flesh, seasoned with soy, maybe some pineapple, and a lot of smoke.

Guava drinks on display - Poi Dog, Philadelphia

 

I’ve replicated the flavors of Huli Huli chicken at barbecues here on the mainland, tweaking the marinade every time. But since it wasn’t a dish we served at my Philadelphia restaurant—Poi Dog—I did so without much thought, without ever putting on my recipe development hat.

But when I went to Hawaii again after a long hiatus, none of the Huli Huli sauce I found was quite like the pineapple-based sauces I concocted at home. It was impossible to find Huli Huli sauce without preservatives or food dye.

So, I decided to make my own. I had to standardize my own recipe and expand my line of Hawaii-inspired sauces. However, when I began working on my Huli Huli sauce, I had just paid for two larger runs of my other two sauces, Chili Peppah water and Guava Katsu. They had just made the journey from their co-manufacturers to their distributor. They hadn’t made the money in sales yet, and funds were low.

 

״Writing paper checks is not only time consuming, but it also represents a missed opportunity to earn points and miles that could have been invested back into recipe development.״

That’s when I started doing research on ways to cut down costs. As a chef and food writer, I’m constantly traveling—collecting points and spending them. I cringe whenever I have to pay for anything with cash or write a check because I know I gain nothing from spending those dollars, other than the product I’m paying for.

Months later, when we were ready for our first run, I used my credit card again to make payments to my co-manufacturer. These miles then helped pay for a return trip back to Hawaii to spend time with family—and get even more inspiration for future recipes.

For those working in the food and beverage industry, my story is not surprising. Many vendors and suppliers are still stuck using antiquated payment methods. Writing paper checks is not only time consuming, but it also represents a missed opportunity to earn points and miles that could have been invested back into recipe development.

Recipe development done right takes a tremendous amount of time and money. For my Huli Huli sauce, the process took nearly a year. But by doing your research, you might find that there are a few hacks along the way to help you save up for more trips back to the places you are most inspired by.

 

Who helped you on your journey to becoming a business owner and how?

Founder of Speaking Broadly, Dana Cowin, has been an excellent mentor who asks hard questions and connects me to like-minded people. I was invited to share my story on her podcast. Her show is about visionary women at the intersection of creativity, sustainability, and food. She is also an executive coach, focusing on creatives and communication. Really inspiring.

What does your typical workday look like? And what is the ideal work day for you?

There is no typical work day but a typical work week involves a lot of emails and calls with distributors, co-manufacturers, retailers and people I work on events with. I also spend a lot of time on Zoom talking partnerships with clients. I teach at Penn Museum about once a week, do some private cheffing (which helps with recipe development) and this means 2-3 days of really intensive prep in the kitchen.

Where do you see yourself in five years? What is your ultimate dream as a business owner?

I don’t know – that’s what’s exciting to me. And I don’t have an ultimate dream but it would be amazing if Shake Shack used my sauces one day.

Who are your business role models? Why?

I think King’s Hawaiian has built a really incredible brand and they’re constantly innovating with new products.

 

Kiki Aranita is the owner and chef of Poi-Dog, located in Philadelphia.

*The purpose of this page is solely to provide information and should not be considered as financial advice
**Melio does not provide legal, tax or accounting advice; you should consult a professional advisor before making any financial decisions.