COVID closed Philadelphia’s Poi Dog, but the sauces and recipes remain
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Kiki Aranita, co-owner of Poi Dog, faced a tough choice last summer: Try to stay open when business had dried up or close the restaurant completely. She opted for the latter.
It felt like the only reasonable decision, Aranita said. “Because if a business isn’t financially viable, then no matter how wonderful and important it is, it just doesn’t make sense to keep it open.”
Poi Dog, a restaurant in Philadelphia that served local food from Hawaii, was a hit with restaurantgoers, but it depended on catering events and business from schools like the nearby University of Pennsylvania. All of that evaporated during the pandemic.
Businesses close all the time, but there’s evidence that the pandemic recession made it worse. A report from the Federal Reserve suggested that there were around 200,000 more closures than usual in 2020. Poi Dog, which closed in July of that year, was one of them.
While the restaurant business might be in the rearview for Aranita (for now, at least), she’s not done with food and neither is the Poi Dog brand. Aranita has launched several sauces that can be found in stores across the country, and she’s continuing her food- and recipe-writing career.
Marketplace host Reema Khrais spoke with Aranita about her decision to close Poi Dog and her unexpected venture into sauce-making. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Reema Khrais: What led up to your decision to close?
Kiki Aranita: We had a citywide shutdown, so basically all restaurants were forced to do delivery and takeout as their only dining options. And we did that for a few days. And the fees for delivery on the restaurant side are extremely steep. So we were signed up with Grubhub, Uber Eats, Caviar, DoorDash, pretty much everybody. And the base rate for that was about 30%. So if you have 30% labor, 30% on a delivery fee, 30% [on] food, that leaves pretty much nothing.
Khrais: You’re not making a lot.
Aranita: Exactly. You’re taking a loss with every single delivery order. So with weddings canceled, meetings are all over Zoom and classes at [the University of Pennsylvania] and Drexel [University] not in session, we were just not making any money at all. So, at the very end of July, we announced that we were closing because it just financially did not make any sense.
Khrais: Emotionally, what was that like?
Aranita: I feel like I blacked out for two weeks.
Khrais: How’d you know so early on that that was the right move for you all?
Aranita: I mean, I don’t think I really did. We had inherited a restaurant that was closed very, very poorly. I cleaned inches of black mold out of freezers, out of the walk-in. And I was determined that if I ever closed a restaurant, that would not be the case at all. So we scrubbed down the restaurant, we donated the majority of our equipment. I feel like we made a bunch of very small decisions that were good and decent. And I didn’t know if the big decision of closing at that point was necessarily the right one. But it just felt like the only one because if a business isn’t financially viable, then no matter how wonderful and important it is, it just doesn’t make sense to keep it open.
Khrais: It’s just tough calculations to make. So you closed it back in July of 2020. What are you up to today?
Aranita: So in the last few years, I had a pretty steady part-time gig food writing and writing recipes for brands. So I got a lot of work on that side. And I did an event where I made chili pepper water, and my friends at the event [who] gave me a lot of advice about retail sauces, said, “Hey, you should bottle this.” And I was like, “You know what, that, that’s a pretty good idea.” And so that began another sort of secondary career. I feel like all my careers right now are secondary careers.
Khrais: It sounds like it was an accident, which is pretty amazing. You weren’t intentionally going out to make these sauces.
Aranita: No, it was a total accident. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Khrais: That’s amazing. So where do you see yourself in the next few years? Do you want to make your way back into the restaurant industry?
Aranita: I’ve been doing a lot of pop-ups, so I don’t really miss cooking at this particular point. I don’t have to worry about rent, and I don’t have to worry about letting people into my own space. I definitely want to build up the sauces a bit more, but it grew really big and fast. The first person who carried them is my best friend and soon-to-be bridesmaid who happens to own a distribution company. So, I definitely had a lot of help. I fell into this, but I had a lot of help.
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