Up until the pandemic hit, on any given lunch hour, walk by Philly’s Poi Dog, and you’d often find a line of customers spilling out the door, all awaiting the fresh and comforting flavors of dishes like ahi poke, mochi nori fried chicken, and other Hawaiian-style food.
Raised between Hong Kong and Oahu, Kiki Aranita cofounded Poi Dog in 2013. She wanted to serve the food she missed from Hawaii, starting out with a food truck that, within five years, turned into a bustling brick-and-mortar. As the only restaurant in Philadelphia that focused on food celebrating Hawaii's culture, the city quickly embraced the fast-casual spot.
But then came COVID. Like the thousands of others, Aranita and her partner made the decision to permanently shut their doors in July of 2020, a deep-cut Philly closure that left plenty across the city mourning the loss.
“I join the huge list of those heartbroken by this turn of events,” wrote one customer on Instagram, among countless others who sent the restaurant farewell messages, including many Hawaiian natives who felt Poi Dog brought a taste of home.
“When I first opened the food truck, I basically thought I was the only person who liked this food. And I knew it was tasty, but as soon as we opened and started garnering a lot of attention, I realized how many people out there were similar to me, and how many were homesick for those flavors,” says Aranita.
Luckily for Philly – and now others across the country – a couple months after the closure, Aranita struck an idea that would help keep the soul of the restaurant alive: a line of sauces inspired by her Hawaii heritage. Today, she’s turned Poi Dog into an online brand and business that she’s focusing on nearly full-time.
We sat down with Aranita to talk about the pivot, along with her best advice for transforming a restaurant into a retail brand.
Tell me more about the decision to close Poi Dog – I imagine it was far from easy.
Our business was actually two separate LLCs. There was the catering side and the restaurant side. The restaurant broke even – and that was with constant pickup orders and a line out the door. Catering is really what paid the bills.
So when the shutdowns were initially announced in March 2020, we were like, alright, we can hang on for a few months. But as the pandemic wore on, we did the projections on how much takeout business we’d have to generate to be sustainable. It just wasn’t possible. We needed people eating inside, we needed people ordering for their wedding – we knew the financial implications of being shut down, so that led to the closure. And we were able to close because we were on the fourth year of a five-year lease, and we found a tenant to take over our space.
How did you feel when you made that final decision?
Emotionally, it was terrible. It’s so much more difficult taking apart a restaurant than putting a restaurant together. But most of the decisions in my life are data-driven. I'm not going to do something if I have to operate at a loss.
Was your plan always to pivot into sauces?
I didn't really know what I was going to do. I didn't get the idea for starting a sauce company until late September.
I did an event with some friends who own retail brands, and they tried something that I made for the event – the Chili Peppah Water – and they were like, ‘hey, this is great, you should bottle it’, and it kind of took off from there. Basically, it came out of me having a community of really useful friends.
Did you have any previous experience packaging or bottling food for a larger audience?
Not at all. I work part time at Drexel [University]’s Food Lab, so I talked to Dr. Jonathan Deutsch from there, and he helped me come up with an initial formula for the Chili Peppah Water.
There are also a lot of CPG groups on Facebook. And I also just did a ton of Googling and talking to other owners and founders of the retail world, eventually piecing it all together.
Are you bottling the sauce yourself?
I don't actually produce the sauces anymore. I work with different co-manufacturers, called co-packers. Co-packers are more likely to take you on if you're making vinegar-based sauces, because acidified foods are extremely shelf-stable and easier to go to market then, say, frozen foods.
How did you find your co-packers?
I was introduced to one by a friend who’s also a chef, and the other I found through this online matching company, PartnerSlate. It’s sort of like online dating, but for manufacturers – you put in what you're looking for like, you know, ideal height, weight, religion, or in my case, ingredients, the number of cases you want for each run, and whatever allergens are in the food, and somebody gets back to you.
Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to other food entrepreneurs who are just getting started in the retail space?
Writing a manufacturing formula is really different from writing a recipe. When you cook for several 100 people, you can taste as you go, and then it's consumed right away. But a manufacturing formula has to be really, really precise. My biggest piece of advice would be to consult a food scientist first. Drexel, Cornell, Rutgers – they have programs that’ll help you as a founder. A food scientist will give you the actual facts and tell you if your product is viable in the way that you envision before you get lured in by a consultant who thinks they can bring your product to market.
Let’s talk about your sauces. You originally launched with the Chili Peppah Water, then added the Lavender Ponzu, and later the Guava Katsu. How’d you decide on these initial products?
Those are the sauces that we made at the restaurant. The recipes are different now. But the Chili Peppah Water was always on my counter for you to drizzle over rice, and the Ponzu was our most popular sauce for our catered menu. The Guava Katsu was served with one of our fried chicken dishes.
Do you have any advice for others on what products to choose, and how to capture your restaurant in an online brand?
You need to have healthy finances, and you need to make sure that people actually want to buy your product. Each of my batches costs me around $3,000-$4,000, and that’s a big upfront investment. I finance the sauce business with the sauce business – I sell a lot of product and that allows me to engage with a food scientist and put the initial down payments with co-packers. If you’re not going to make a certain amount in terms of sales, just make it in-house and sell it small-scale.
But, I really wish I had done this earlier, when I had a restaurant. That's one of my biggest regrets. It can add a lot of sales, and you have more hands to help you with test batches.
How did you figure out you were going to sell as much product as you needed?
I'm still trying to figure that out, but I get a sense by my retailers. Most of the sauce I wholesale. I didn’t do a lot of market research, because so many retailers reached out to me, so I was just meeting demand.
Has the retail business been successful?
It's kind of breaking even right now. And I'm probably going to take the money in the bank and hire a consultant, in which case I'll have no money again.
Your sauces quickly gained local attention when you first launched, and then also some national buzz. Did that surprise you or did you do any steps upfront to help that happen?
I didn’t have a plan at all for getting the word out. I'm still trying to meet demand, both in terms of production and telling the story. I just hired a PR person. But at the beginning, I think I got a lot of attention because we were a pretty significant closure, and it was a compelling pandemic story with a silver lining. But it’s through media where I get the most sales, from all over the country. Whenever I'm on NPR, that sells so much sauce and gets me new retailers.
How would you compare your new venture to running a restaurant?
With the restaurant, I was in a constant state of anxiety, and now I'm only in a constant state of anxiety when the sauce is being shipped – as wonderful as my co-packers are, from breakage to shipments getting lost, there’s just so much that can go wrong.
This has opened up a lot of opportunities for me, too. Like I can go be a resident chef at different places now. The longest stint was at Jose Garces’ Volver, and that was super, super cool because they brought me in to create a fine dining menu and allowed me to write my sauces into the menu. It became more of an immersive experience. They also put my sauces into their cocktails – seeing them on a bar menu where mixology is taken seriously, that was the coolest thing.
Do you ever miss the day-to-day of working in a restaurant?
I scratch that itch with chef residencies and pop-ups. I haven't really left the restaurant kitchen. But I’m not as traumatized by daily restaurant operations. I do miss the camaraderie of my staff and working alongside them everyday.
Any final advice for others who want to launch a retail line?
Hire a designer. For labels, there's an FDA guide that's accessible online. Give that to the designer so that they can follow it to the letter. You're going to be too busy with other things to be doing this yourself.
[Photo by Caroline Hatchett]