Kiki Aranita stirring pot

Chef and restauranteur, Kiki Aranita;  Shot by Neal Santos

Philadelphia’s forever been described as a big city with a small town feel, and that sentiment feels especially true of its restaurant industry.

This class of young and talented restaurateurs and chefs have cultivated a strong sense of camaraderie and community, and many are leveraging their strong bonds to raise awareness and funds for a variety of worthy organizations and causes.

Poi Dog Philly, the Hawaiian fast-casual restaurant located in Rittenhouse, and its co-owners Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca can often be found cooking at charitable events around the city, and today Kiki sat down with FEASTIVAL to discuss how food can be used for good, the many organizations she has worked with, and how Philadelphia’s food scene still has room to grow.

Audi FEASTIVAL: For anyone not familiar with Poi Dog, can you describe your restaurant?

Kiki: Poi Dog is a business in 3 different parts. We started off as a food truck about 6 years ago, and [Chris Vacca, my co-owner, and I] still run the truck for special events like weddings, baby showers, luaus, corporate events, and basically any kind of party where there is a backyard or a driveway. We also have a catering business where we do coursed meals set up in people’s homes or banquet halls. We, of course, have the restaurant on 21st Street between Chestnut and Sansom.

The menus for [each] branch of the business are a little different.  The food truck is more handheld, snack-type, easy-to-eat-with-your-hands food. The catering side is pretty flexible. It can be almost whatever the client wants. And the restaurant pretty much sticks to what you would find in Hawaii, like plate lunches and poke but done our way.

What did you want to be as a kid; did you always want to be a restauranteur?

No, I wanted to be a ballerina.

Poi Dog Philly's co-owners Chris Vacca and Kiki Aranita shot by Neal Santos

Poi Dog Philly’s co-owners Chris Vacca and Kiki Aranita;  Shot by Neal Santos

When did you realize that you, as a restaurateur, had a platform that you could use for good and how did that develop?

For Poi Dog and for me, things happened really gradually and really naturally. As I said, we started with the food truck, then we grew our catering business, and then we opened the restaurant when we outgrew our capacity in the commissary and the truck. We took our time. We didn’t open the restaurant until four years after we started the business.

As we were starting the business, I was looking to my other friends for guidance. I have a lot of friends in the food industry who had opened restaurants and fast-casual restaurants, so they had basically given me a path to follow. In cultivating this community of being able to say, “Hey, I need help with this,” [the different restaurant owners] also found that we creatively wanted to work together.

From the get-go, Poi Dog has been a part of pop-ups and collaboration dinners. A lot of these collaboration dinners raise money for charities that are close to our hearts and address pressing issues. The Muhibbah Dinners raise money for immigration causes, for example.

Later on, we would also be approached by interesting vendors who would give us an interesting ingredient to work with. [Different restaurants] would team up and figure out how to put a dinner together based on those ingredients.

For example, I have a friend in New York who is one of the founders of Gotham Grove which imports rare Korean vinegars, soy sauces, and other ingredients as well as Icelandic seaweeds. We’re using a bunch of her ingredients for a dinner here at Poi Dog on the 23rd. I’m teaming up with the team from Pelago, which is also the team behind Lalo, the Filipino fast casual kiosk in the Bourse. I’ve been friends with [Pelago’s co-founders], Jill [Encarnacion], Resa [Mueller], Neal [Santos]  for a while now. We’ve collaborated in the past on quite a few other things, not just food things. Neal is a very well known photographer and has done most of our photography: for our website, all of our headshots, our food photos. We’ve also cooked together at the free library and done various popup things together. The next installment of that is next week. We’re doing a Hawaiian style Fiesta Luau where we’re combining Filipino and Hawaiian flavors using these Korean and Icelandic ingredients. That’s just purely creative.

The men of Poi Dog

The Men of Poi Dog; Shot by Ted Nghiem

You guys work with a variety of organizations – ranging from No Kid Hungry, who you were in DC with this week…

Yeah, I do a few things with them actually.

I’m on the Chefs’ Board for Pennsylvania.

Monday and Tuesday, [No Kid Hungry] flew in a bunch of chefs from around the country to lobby in Washington on the hill.  So I met with Sen. Bob Casey, the office of Rep Glenn Thompson, and Sen Dick Durbin. Right now, our goal is to close the summer meal gap. In the summer, kids aren’t in school, and they don’t have regular access to food. The organization is looking to streamline the National School Lunch program and summer meals programs. Right now they are two separate programs, but they’re addressing the same kids. It doesn’t make any sense logistics-wise. [We’re focused] basically on ensuring funding for No Kid Hungry, streamlining, and expanding their mobile food program.

What’s the mobile food program?

They service a lot of communities that are really rural and [a lot of communities with very active gang activity]. Many times No Kid Hungry’s mobile food program crosses gang lines, so it gets really difficult and dangerous for kids to access lunch or dinner or basic nutrition. They’re looking to expand the mobile food program because they’re only servicing something like 16% of kids in need.

That’s really awesome and necessary.

It was a really eye-opening and interesting experience to be a part of.

Poi Dog Philly also has worked with the Vetri Foundation, Broad St. Ministry, Terroir Hospitality, and the ACLU. How do you choose what organizations you work with?

Obviously, we do have to choose. We get bombarded every single day by emails asking us to please donate… Obviously, if we donated to every single one, we would not be in business. So I make the choice to really focus on a few.

I am on the boards of No Kid Hungry and C-CAP, so those are at the forefront of my mind right now. I’ve also been part of the Women Against Abuse benefit for five or six years now–I honestly can’t remember right now, So those are probably the charities that I am most involved with and care the most about. Basically, anything they ask me to do I’m like “Yeah sure.” And everybody else, I have to [check that it] fits into our calendar. We also have a budget of how much we can donate per month. If we exceed that budget, our bookkeeper gets upset with me, so we try not to exceed that budget!

That makes sense. You need boundaries and limitations to be able to keep moving forward. What’s C-CAP?

C-CAP helps kids go through culinary school and trains them. They dole out a lot of scholarships. There’s a Philadelphia chapter.

Kiki in the kitchen shot by Neal Santos

Kiki in the kitchen; Shot by Neal Santos

The ACLU dinner was just last week. What goes into creating and executing an event like that?

The ACLU dinner was entirely Scott Schroeder’s, [the chef of FEASTIVAL participant The Hungry Pigeon] doing. He rallied a whole bunch of us together to cook and raise money for abortion rights and donate all of the proceeds to the ACLU.

It was just this week. I had to come back from DC for one night for it, so Chris had to shoulder most of the food prep for it. We made macadamia nut hamachi poke with a lot of extraordinary ingredients such as the perilla oil from Gotham Grove. It went so smoothly. We were really with a whole long list of heavy hitters like Scott Schroeder, Jennifer Carroll and Billy Riddle, Jonny Mac… basically everybody!

It was such a cool line up!

And you know what–people looked so happy. There were people coming back into the kitchen or following [the chefs] outside telling us how much they enjoyed each of the dishes and just how much they appreciated this. We also had some protesters outside.  

Oh really??

Yeah. So apparently there were more before I got there–between 6 and 10–but once I arrived, there were just two men.

Of course.

Holding up their signs outside. At different points, being on their knees praying. They were generally pretty polite protesters, but they were blocking the way.

Wow. In a similar vein, I follow a woman named Valencia Clay who’s a teacher in Baltimore. She talks about how she’s isn’t necessarily at every protest or march, but her activism happened in the classroom. Do you consider yourself an activist?

I think so. One of the things I was in DC for was Dine-n-Dash which was raising money for the World Central Kitchen and is organized by Jose Andres. I think he put it far better than I did. He said when something goes wrong and there’s a disaster, his way of doing things, which is essentially our way of doing things, is just to start cooking. So I’ve really taken that to heart. I don’t know how to do that many things, but I do know how to do this.

And you do it well.

Thank you. And I do know how to organize. Even though I can’t swoop in and save somebody or change legislation right away…I mean I can certainly talk about it…there’s nothing preventing us from getting together and cooking.

That’s something that’s been happening over and over again…It’s really exciting to see that I am just a small part of all this and that there is a big movement truly believed in by many chefs. We may not know how to do anything else, but we can get up and cook.

Kiki, Chris, and Poi Dog Philly at FEASTIVAL 2019 Shot by Joe Mac Creative

Kiki, Chris, and Poi Dog Philly at FEASTIVAL 2018; Shot by Joe Mac Creative

What’s one thing that you would like to see change in the nationwide restaurant industry or Philadelphia’s food community?

I would like to change the amount of food waste that I see at the end of events. I would like to see a cutting down on the amount of plastic.

I’m from Hawaii. Many of the food events in Hawaii are also dine around tasting events. You walk into the event, and you are given one cup and one fork. It is up to you to hold onto that one cup and one fork. It’s a reusable bamboo fork; I’ve collected a few of these over the years and use them all the time at home. So perhaps at FEASTIVAL, we could assign people with one fork. That would cut down on the plastic that goes into the bin at the end of the night. Also in Hawaii, we use reusable wine glasses with the little divet on the side. Those work beautifully, and either way, you aren’t throwing out eight of them.

It seems like all of these events are trying to raise money for one objective, and the other issues fall by the wayside. It’s like “Hey, we’re raising money for childhood hunger but we’re also wasting all of this food at the end of the night.” Like how do we prevent that from happening?

That’s a good point and question for all of us. Lastly, what’s next on the horizon for you guys?

FEASTIVAL!

FEASTIVAL is, of course, the crown jewel of events in Philadelphia. I’m so excited about it. It creates so much excitement in Philadelphia amongst a whole bunch of different groups who don’t normally work together. It crosses divides between dining and art and event planning.

Next week is a little wild. We’re still in June so we still have food truck events every other day practically. Next week, Saturday, is Molestice a big music festival at Mole St. And they bring in really great acts and basically have a big dance party outside. We’ve brought the food truck to it for the last five or six years. So I’m really excited about that. Then we have some catering: lots and lots of birthday parties, weddings, outdoor weddings, and that’s it.  

Thank you so much to Kiki and Poi Dog Philly for talking with us!

Poi Dog is located at 100.5 South 21st Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103 in the Rittenhouse neighborhood. You can find them on the web at www.poidogphilly.com and on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Philadelphia’s performing and culinary arts scenes unite once again for the 2019 Audi FEASTIVAL benefitting FringeArts. On Thursday, September 26th, 70 of Philadelphia’s top restaurants and bars join the city’s most breathtaking artists to create a unique experience for guests and celebrate the event’s tenth anniversary! Save 20% at checkout when you use the code FEAST19 until July 15!