Meet – Kiki Aranita Food Cart Owner
Kiki was born in New York City but raised mostly in Honolulu and Hong Kong. She studied Comparative Literature and Italian as an undergraduate and holds graduate degrees in Comp Lit and Classics. Kiki spent the summer after her first year of university in Mallorca with a friend’s Chinese-Spanish family where his parents taught her how to make a couple dishes. Kiki ended up subsisting on Tortilla Espanola and Arroz con Leche for the remainder of college. She started teaching herself to cook as a grad student because she wanted to recreate her favorite dishes from her childhood in Hawaii.
She now owns and runs Poi Dog, a Hawaiian, Filipino food cart in Philadelphia with her partner. They also regularly vend at corporate offices offering a constantly rotating menu of snacks, Hawaiian plate lunches, musubis, tacos, Filipino desserts and mochi butter. Poi Dog Philly holds the title of Philadelphia magazine’s Best of Philly 2014 Food Truck.
Why did you decide to found Poi Dog? What were you doing before?
I met my partner, Chris Vacca, at Bryn Mawr College. We started PhDs in Classics at the same time. I had been teaching Classics (mostly mythology, also ancient Greek prior to moving to Pennsylvania). As grad students, we cooked and ate a lot together. He came to Hawaii a few times and adored the food there. Towards the end of our time at Bryn Mawr (I left with a Master’s), we both held side jobs in restaurants and in food trucks in Philly. Somewhere along the way, we figured we could do our own thing. There wasn’t anything vaguely Hawaiian in Philly, so we knew it would be unique, if nothing else. A friend I worked with at Garces restaurant happened to own a taco cart that he wanted to sell. We basically had everything that we would need to start a food truck business handed to us. We even kept the original truck wrap and printed out circular stickers with our logo (which we made sure matched his color scheme) to cover up his logo.
Can you describe a typical day running the food cart vs. catering?
We typically vend two or three times a week, either at a farmers’ market or inside the City Hall courtyard for lunch. Those days start very early, at 5.30am, and there’s a lot of scrambling: load up and set up the cart at the commissary, make as many Spam musubis as I can muster, finish prep and respond to messages. On busy days in good weather, we run on a lot of coffee and adrenaline. We’ll pull into our spot a few minutes before service. Service is the easy part, unless it’s a huge beer festival or something with thousands of hungry people. As for catering, there isn’t really a typical day. With the cart, we’ll spend the weeks before working out a menu with a customer for their wedding, baby shower, birthday party, funeral, corporate luau, etc. and then show up with the cart and serve the predetermined menu. We also cook out of peoples’ kitchens. We’ll bring everything needed to serve a five-course meal. Those are often the most interesting and challenging.
What part of your work brings you the most joy?
It brings us joy to hear that our food brings back good memories of Hawaii or exceeds expectations of what can be served from the tiniest of food trucks. We also enjoy being able to speak (we teach a bunch of cooking classes) and write about the cultural implications of the food we serve.
What is the most popular item on your menu?
The most popular item on our menu is the Mochi Nori Fried Chicken – which is our creation and derived from mochiko chicken in Hawaii. Ours has furikake in the batter and we dress it with a togarashi-yuzu mayo.
What is your favorite tool in the kitchen?
I know it’s probably much more dignified to say a chef’s knife or something, but it is my Spam slicer. Do you know how difficult it would be to make hundreds of musubis without a Spam slicer?
What are the different types of people you coordinate with?
We coordinate with farmers, mechanics, tons of city folks, event planners, organizers, catering coordinators and also a fair amount of press. We also work with insurance agents, an accountant and a lawyer.
What is the funniest moment you remember while working at Poi Dog?
There was a guy who came to the cart to order Bibingka but he called it “bada-bing.” That made my day.
Any words of advice for kids curious about how to start a food cart of their own?
Offer something utterly unique and prepare to work extremely long exhausting days. If you can “wear many hats” and figure out spreadsheets, you’ll be fine.