At just 26 years old, Steph has introduce HK to the best of Hawaiian cuisine
While the sun is still shining we thought we’d catch up with inspiring female foodie entrepreneur, Steph Kudus. Steph has added a splash of summer fun to our lives year round by introducing fresh, filling Hawaiian fare to Hong Kong. Her poké shack, Pololi, is the first of its kind in our city and has quickly become a firm favourite for a healthy, delicious lunch. With three locations now in Hong Kong, Pololi has no signs of slowing down and we couldn’t be happier!
With tons of inventive flavours, high quality ingredients, friendly staff and a super chilled out vibe, Pololi is our go-to when we’re in need of a quick yet nourishing meal. We chat to Steph about how she went from being a banker to owning her own business, what makes Pololi stand out for competitors and where they’ll be opening up shop next…
Tell us about your background and where you’re from.
In short, I’m a beach-lovin’ investment banker turned poképreneur.
Born in sunny Singapore into a large family (we had four generations living under the same roof), I went through the highly-rigorous Singaporean education system. Thankfully for super open and forward-looking parents, they let my sisters and I move to the California for college.
I completed my BA at UCLA but spent most of my summers in Hawaii attending summer school, surfing, and eating poké. At UCLA, I ran the campus cafeteria to explore my culinary interests, it was there that I discovered how I loved being behind the counter and whipping up great food.
I moved to Hong Kong after school and have called the 852 home for the last 6 years.
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live in Central in a studio with a pretty large private terrace. I grew up with a huge family and loads of friends always coming to visit and hang at my house – so when I got my studio, I wanted to make sure that I could still have my friends over all the time.
I have basically turned my house into my dream bachelorette pad – I got a 4-burner hooded BBQ pit that I cook on when my friends come over to hang out all year round. We put throws out on the terrace and sit, eat and drink. Being a movie buff, I’ve turned one of my white walls into a screen so that I can project movies. My walls are filled with unique paintings I’ve acquired over the years, and whales and sharks decals to remind me of what it’s like to be underwater, scuba diving.
How do you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
I would like to consider my style beach-ready – shorts, comfortable shoes, and a colourful printed top. – between hanging at Pololi and meeting partners and suppliers, you never know when a couple hours open up and I have time to hit the beach or an easy hike!
It was not so recently that I was an investment banker, that meant that for five years all I wore was black and white corporate garb, so I’ve only recently kicked the habit of only dressing in black, or black and white prints. My wardrobe is now filled with jewel-coloured tops, dresses and lots and lots of jackets! I love accessories, especially chunky rings and charm bracelets that remind me of places I’ve been to and people who are close to me.
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
Well – truth be told, I hardly have time to shop in Hong Kong – which means that I only end up shopping online or when I am holidays or with my fashionista sisters. I frequently look on Gilt or ASOS, but also make an annual trip back to California and Hawaii where I treat myself to some massive shopping time. I look for clothes that that don’t require ironing for daily wear and have a weakness for Diane Von Furstenberg and Karen Millen dresses for a fun night out.
What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
For the longest time, I always believed that all you need is good skin, a sun-kissed face and a big bright smile. That being said, I am reliant on my Belif moisturising bomb and Anessa sunscreen. For make-up, I always have a MAC black eyeliner and a deep burgundy lipstick in my bag – you never know when you need that extra oomph!
For the last 13 years, I’ve had my hair cut and coloured by the same hairdresser in Singapore – yes, that means I’m at the salon each time I go back home. I get my nails done at Canary Nails – they seem to have the longest stay manicure, and that’s so useful for someone who works in the kitchen! For a foot massage after a long week, I head to Joy Ocean or Happy Foot!
Describe your perfect weekend in Hong Kong.
I think the makings of a perfect weekend is doing and looking for things that can inspire you. The best Saturdays are spent doing things I love – waking up early for a SUP (stand up paddle) session in Stanley or a hike up Dragon’s Back or The Peak, grabbing brunch and good coffee with my best mates before popping by Pololi in the afternoon to work on new flavours. I also love going to the movies, so I try to catch a movie at the cinema and then hit a couple of usual spots for dinner and drinks before calling it a night!
I call Sunday my adventure day and I attempt to attend yoga class in the morning and then explore a side of Hong Kong I’ve never done before such as going island hopping, checking out a new beach, a different trail, or reading a new book at the Victoria Peak garden.
Where are your favourite places to eat and drink in Hong Kong (apart from Pololi of course!)?
Ha, this is a tough one! I am a creature of habit so I only go to a few places in Hong Kong, ALL THE TIME. Besides good food, I like going to places that believe in good service too. Hands down my favourite restaurant/bar in Hong Kong is Yardbird as they’ve (Matt & Lindsay) got the right values, great food and an amazing team.
My other go-tos are Posto Pubblico or Carbone when I crave pasta, Bread & Beast when I’m looking for a quick lunch, Belon for their killer roasted chicken and Beef & Liberty when I simply want a cheeseburger. But I can’t forget the Asian food! I head to 新景園咖喱小廚 for local curry pork chop rice, 火井火锅 for hotpot with fresh ingredients and Moyo for spicy tofu soup. Cheese is my religion, so I replace meals with cheese platters and a bottle of wine at Caprice, La Cabane, and ON Dining.
For a good tipple, I love a whisky or two at Angel’s Share, Tiki drinks at Honi Honi and Mahalo as it’s the closest thing to a Polynesian oasis in Hong Kong, Café Grey at Upper House when I’ve got visitors in town to show them the killer view and the Hobnail at The Pontiac – Beckaly and her crew have the best vibes in town!
What’s your favourite place in Hong Kong and why?
My favourite place in Hong Kong is where I get a moment to clear head and focus my thoughts – on my meditation mat 😀
But honestly, I am a firm believer that food brings people together, I’m in my happiest place when I’m around the company I love, enjoying a scrumptious meal where conversations flow freely.
Tell us about your career and how/why you started Pololi.
I graduated at 20 and immediately jumped head in to an investment banking career with Merrill Lynch. During that time, I had a great team but spent 70% of my day at the office and had to eat most of my lunches at my desk. Sushi sets from GREAT or ThreeSixty were my go-to lunch choice (made it easy when I needed to juggle conference calls, lunch and clearing emails at the same time!) but then it occurred to me that I could make them myself with the type and cuts of fish that I preferred. I started making my own poké bowls and taking them to work. People would ask what it was and I’d let them try it, and it slowly became a hit!
In 2014, I had just finished an awesome year but felt that something was missing in my life, I knew I wanted to accomplish a little more before I turned 25. That same year, Pololi Central opened in September of 2014.
I had the busiest year – between work and Pololi, I hardly had a chance to breathe, but it was all worth it. I was painting walls, creating flavours, training and building my team, cleaning and serving customers. We started getting so busy that I had to make a choice between creating prospectuses or making poké, and poké won! Since I left the bank 15 months ago, we’ve opened up two more shops in Sheung Wan and Wan Chai!
How did you introduce this new type of food to the HK market and how did people initially respond to it?
We had a lot of customers come in thinking we were an ice cream parlour or even a surf shop. Customers thought it was weird that our seafood was cubed (as they were used to slices) and seasoned (as they no longer needed to add additional shoyu to their fish) but over time, our customers realised their own individual preferences for the perfect poké bowl and kept coming back for more.
Education and embracing the Aloha spirit was key for us since day one. At Pololi, we take pride in introducing what Pololi is and what Hawaiian poké is to every single customer who walks through our door. Everyone who comes through our door is welcome to our Ohana (“family”). We take time to understand each customer’s preferences or if they’ve got any allergies before recommending new flavours for them to try. Only if they like what they’ve tasted, we direct them to the next step which is how to build your perfect poké bowl! For returning customers who see a new flavour on the board, we encourage them to try it first before ordering.
How do you come up with new flavours for the poké and which are your favourite ones?
As poké means to slice or to cut, we can be as creative as we want. Apart from traditional Hawaiian poké flavours, I draw inspiration from my travels or my visits to wet markets, supermarkets, spice shops, etc. As a kid, Sunday grocery shopping was what I looked forward every week! Nowadays, I scale through sauce and spice aisles with a passion and am always up to trying the most exotic choices (as you can imagine, my collection of spices and sauces is rather extensive!).
I’m working on a new spicy non-mayo flavour right now which is inspired from this pickled mango chutney I tried in India earlier this month and lonumirus (chilli paste), which I learned how to make on my liveaboard last week in the Maldives! Together with my team, we then do several tastes tests before we find the perfect balance – this could take several weeks – that then goes into production for our ohana.
TBH, I’ve got way too many favourite flavours! You can’t fault me for loving my creations 😀 I guess if I have to pick, then I would have to say traditional spicy and spicy mayo are the ones I eat the most as it reminds me the most about Hawaii. I also love our Thai Spice because it reminds me of my short stint in Bangkok when I lived there one summer.
What has been your biggest struggle as an entrepreneur in Hong Kong?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a struggle, but I wish I had more hours in a day! I’m really hands-on with the business and am involved with all decisions at Pololi – marketing and branding, licensing, equipment, finance and strategy, and even bowl designs!
My top priority everyday is building a team that shares the Pololi vision and one that is able to channel a strong Aloha spirit! Even though we are a takeaway joint, we strive to provide undivided attention and friendly service for the short amount of time we have with each customer.
Any advice for those looking to set up their own restaurant/business in the food industry?
Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty and know your product inside out.
What do you love about the HK food scene?
Hong Kong has a vibrant food scene and I love the variety diners can choose from. You’ve got Caribbean, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and burger options all within a minute walking distance of each other in Central, and similar across rest of the islands.
How do you feel about other poké stores opening up and what differentiates Pololi from future competitors?
Pololi began in 2014, born out of our passion to share poké and the Aloha spirit with Hong Kong. I’m happy to see that the demand for poké has grown and more and more people are being exposed to it.
I believe that the thing that would set us apart – beyond our commitment to quality – is the fact that each of our team members continues to share our passion for good food and is proud to be part of the Pololi Ohana!
Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years? What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
We will be growing! I will be looking at expanding our business overseas in the next five years, and (you’re the first to know) we are looking at Singapore as our first overseas location for Pololi.
Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor