WRITTEN BY CATHERINE E. TOTH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANA DILLON
Born in Waialua, raised in Wahiawā and seasoned in the Nashville music industry, Poni Askew returned home with the intention to make and sell Mexican popsicles. Instead, she had three kids, worked at Starbucks and conjured up the unique idea of organizing a large-scale food truck rally every month in Kaka‘ako.
Today, the 42-year-old Mililani resident is the founder and CEO of Street Grindz, an events management company that currently hosts Eat the Street, Honolulu Night Market and ARTafterDARK. This summer, the company debuted Makers & Tasters, an outdoor venue with food truck vendors at the old Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant site in Kewalo.
Askew managed to find time to talk story with us about her vision for Street Grindz, the challenges of being a small business owner, and her plans to take her wildly popular food truck rally on the road.
1. What inspired you to work within the food industry?
Prior to owning Street Grindz I worked for Starbucks. It was a great company to work for, but I felt that I needed to work and provide impact. In 2010, when we started Street Grindz, I actually thought that I’d be a street vendor myself and make ice pops. That changed as I learned quickly that I did not like chopping and blending fruit that much! What I do enjoy is finding ways to provide opportunities to small business owners by providing locations and venues for them to be successful at their business. Street food is a long-lived tradition here in Hawai‘i and, in 2010, I thought it was very under-appreciated and under-recognized. I wanted to bring attention to some of the most ‘ono food in the islands — street food!
2. How would you describe what you do?
It’s always so difficult to describe what we do. Many people call us event planners – and we do plan events. However, I consider us to be community and commerce developers. Our events bring the community together, giving them a place to gather over food, and our makers to showcase their talents. Our mission is to connect people, grow small businesses and, at the end of the day, the output is a very cool virtuous cycle of local economy.
3. What motivates you to feed the community?
Local food business success is what drives me. It’s satisfying to see our street food vendors realize their dreams to be entrepreneurs. We are passionate about building systems of abundance starting right here in Hawai‘i, and that all starts with little shifts in how we buy and what we eat. We’re hoping to create a space where that can happen; where, with every plate, we see both residents and tourists venturing outside of chain restaurants and fast food joints to support local businesses.
4. Why food trucks for your business model?
When we started our business in 2010, I wanted Hawai‘i to be placed on the map for street food. I knew that street food in Hawai‘i has been around for over 100 years. It’s a legacy here and we wanted to make sure we stood out against cities like LA, San Francisco and Portland, which, at the time, were getting all the attention for street food. There is much to applaud (these cities) for success in social media integration and street food. They even led the way in bringing about the gourmet food truck. But, at the end of the day, Hawai‘i has its own story to tell. We have had the manapua man forever and the Kahuku shrimp truck was slinging plates way before there were any taco fusion trucks out there.
5. What is your vision for creating the food truck initiative?
I believe that through community and commerce we can find a virtuous cycle that supports our local community of small business owners and local farmers. An approachable educational opportunity for street food vendors will increase their opportunities for success. Imagine a local economy where small local food entrepreneurs and street food vendors work together by aggregating their Top 10 produce items purchased and sourcing as a collective their food from local farmers. We can all be part of a virtuous cycle just by taking part in eating from our local food entrepreneurs.
6. Tell us about Makers & Tasters, your newest venture? Where do you hope this will lead to in the future?
I hope that Makers & Tasters provides the next step of opportunity to street food vendors that are looking for a permanent or semi-permanent place to park. I also hope to provide the community of “tasters” the opportunity to enjoy food trucks/street food outside of large-scale events like Eat the Street. A place to sit and relax with their families and pets in an environment so unique and special to Honolulu while providing all of the creature comforts, including clean bathrooms, plenty of seating, pau hana drinks and an amazing view. We are looking forward to finding success in our first venue. Who knows? There may be one in a neighborhood near you.
7. How do you see your work impacting future generations here on this island?
Street food is a great way to start a business with a minimal amount of overhead to get started. This, in itself, provides hope and encouragement to people who are eager to be their own boss. Street Grindz and Makers & Tasters were designed to support the hopeful food entrepreneur – providing venues, events and marketing. I hope that this inspiration translates to future food entrepreneurs. We have presented to several colleges and are looking forward to a local high school’s career fair. I think that there is a ton of opportunity for the budding entrepreneur.
8. Are there any plans to take this to other islands in the future?
We have aspirations to venture into the other islands. We have not only provided events and venues for vendors, but we have advocated for the food truck industry as well. I think our experience can translate to something more than creating an Eat the Street or Makers & Tasters on other islands.
9. What is the most challenging aspect of doing business in Hawaii for you?
Gosh, that’s a loaded question. People always say that Hawai‘i is the most difficult state to start your own business or be an entrepreneur. To that I always as this question: “Have you tried to do business anywhere else?” The grass is truly always greener on the other side. But one of the challenges I have had along the way was really defining who we are, what we offer. We do not see ourselves as event planners; we see ourselves as community developers. From the view of a street food vendor, I’d say the biggest challenge is that there are too many people looking to their neighbor to see what they do and then they try to do something “better.” I think the better way to move within an industry is to look for what you can’t find and then ask why is it not there. For example, I have been giving presentations for three years now. The first thing I say is there are two food trucks that are overdone. Please do not open a cupcake truck or a taco truck! There are so many of them out there. Don’t duplicate what you find. Come up with something new. That’s the only way to stay ahead.
10. What is the best thing about doing business in Hawai‘i for you?
The people of Hawai‘i are truly unique and amazing. I left home (Hawai‘i) for almost 15 years. During that time I met lots of different people from all kinds of backgrounds. There is nothing like the people of Hawai‘i. Between small business owners and the hundreds of thousands of people we have hosted at our events over the years, it’s just amazing to see that overall the people of Hawai‘i are community-oriented, local-supporting residents. We couldn’t be in business if it were not for the people we work with and work for. Our community humbles me and that’s what keeps me going at Street Grindz every day. So, mahalo to all the tasters for being such loyal supporters of Street Grindz and all the food trucks in our network.