When I opened Poi Dog with my business partner Chris Vacca, the two of us shouldered almost all of the work for the first four years we were in business as a food truck and a catering company. When we opened the brick-and-mortar restaurant in Rittenhouse, we hand-painted the signs and the Hawaiian quilt mural on the floor. We decorated the walls with paintings by my grandfather not just because they were beautiful depictions of Hawaiian flora, but because they were free.
We came up with all the recipes, the training systems, and the menus. We had no outside investors and could not afford any consultants. For a year and a half, we practically lived at the restaurant. As first-time restaurant owners, we learned about the business on the job. This, as many entrepreneurs know, is immensely difficult.
Still, Poi Dog earned frequent national attention, sometimes for the food and sometimes for being an anomaly: a restaurant committed to honestly representing Hawaii’s complex food culture.
It was listed as one of Philadelphia Magazine’s Best Restaurants within a month after opening, and was featured in The Inquirer, though the restaurant was never formally reviewed.
First dates and 100th dates happened within our doors and at our food truck. We’ve gone on to cater the weddings and baby showers of couples who met over bowls of poke and plates of Mochi Nori Fried Chicken.
The restaurant could never have achieved its accolades without our excellent staff, to whom we eventually handed the reins of management in many areas. We are proud of our staff not just for their skills but for the kindness each of them displayed toward each other and to our guests.
Our staff was also consistently diverse. We learned to hire not based on skill, though many skilled cooks, counter staff, and dishwashers came through our doors, but on inherent kindness. Kindness came from many cultures and countries.
Along with other restaurants in this city, Poi Dog was extremely active in charity fund-raising, particularly for organizations like No Kid Hungry, C-CAP, FringeArts, Women Against Abuse, the March of Dimes, and many more.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants will no longer have the financial capabilities to participate as we did, but we will continue to support and spread the word on the causes that we worked to advance.
Part of Poi Dog’s mission was to combat food waste, coming up with innovative ways to use every part of each ingredient that went into our dishes. We will continue to do so on our social platforms, especially given that we are in times of extreme food insecurity.
We’ve cooked all over the country for festivals, events, and celebrations. Internationally, too. If you’ll allow me a moment of grief, a restaurant has a body and a soul. We are leaving the former behind.
Through Poi Dog, we worked to perpetuate a culture of aloha that hopefully will be a lasting one. In addition to hello, aloha means love, compassion, and respect. It can also mean goodbye and in a time of many goodbyes, we are adding another.
Some news outlets occasionally reported that we were “Hawaiian-themed,” a description that stung. The root of our food and culture is not a theme.
We hope you remember this.
We urge you to support the new small businesses of Poi Dog employees: Tabachoy, a Filipino food cart manned by Chance Anies, who makes fantastic lechon, and JamBrü by Jamaar Julal, who makes the best kombucha we have ever tasted. Both will be available on our final day of service.
We are indebted to our dishwasher-turned-kitchen manager Ariel Tobing and counterperson-turned-lead cook Alyssa Osborne, who produce fine art and have both been with us since we opened the restaurant and contributed greatly to the aesthetics of our business. Erving Salcedo, one of our longtime dishwashers, is a talented carpenter who makes beautiful jewelry boxes. Please reach out to us for their contacts.
Mahalo for making us a part of your lives, relationships, and families. Hui hou (until we meet again).
Kiki Aranita is a chef and freelance food writer.