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Poi to the world: Honokaa’s new restaurant features B.J. Penn’s ‘Ono Poi’

Updated: 
March 14, 2017 - 1:00am

HONOKAA — What do mixed martial arts champ B.J. Penn and “Shark Tank” success story Mai Lieu have in common? The new Fish &Poi Co. in Honokaa, which had its soft opening earlier this month.

Specializing in fresh fish poke and other Hawaiian/local foods, the restaurant is a partnership of Lieu, Penn and two others, Emerique Kanekoa and J.J. Meyers.

“The first day was amazing,” said Lieu. “People were driving by, saw we were open and came in. Everyone was taking photos, posting on Facebook and posting some great reviews on Yelp. It’s amazing what social media can do. There was already a line out the door at lunch time. On First Friday we sold out of poi about an hour before it was over.”

A grand opening is planned for Honokaa’s next First Friday event on April 7.

Lieu and Penn met serendipitously at Waipio Cookhouse, where Penn was having lunch.

“The owner, Larry Vidlak, introduced us and we exchanged numbers,” said Lieu. “As I was interviewing people for the space, it was B.J. who was the most urgent and clear. He has a taro farm in Waipio Valley, and is always so passionate about taro.”

Known as one of the best mixed martial arts fighters in the world, B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn is originally from Hawaii Island. He is the first non-Brazilian winner of the World Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship in the black belt category, and the second fighter to win Ultimate Fighting Championship titles as both a lightweight and a welterweight. He works extensively with youth, operating gyms on Oahu and in Hilo. Penn’s Ono Poi Company, LLC opened last year.

Lieu is the inventor of the CreaClip, a DIY haircutting tool that landed her a $200,000 investor on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2016. Her products have also been featured on Home Shopping Network and “The Rachael Ray Show.”

Lieu’s roots in the restaurant business started as a child, in her parents’ Chinese restaurant.

“It was open seven days a week. I waitressed, did deliveries and everything it took to be successful,” she said.

Lieu pursued a highly successful hair stylist career, traveling internationally and eventually found her way to Hawaii in 2001. After 12 years on Oahu, she came to Honokaa in 2013, and the following year, opened the popular “unplugged” gaming store, Your Turn.

“I saw this beautiful town, with so much potential, and wanted to help grow this community,” Lieu said.

Her vision was to provide new businesses for the community that would also attract tourists.

She purchased the 1925 Fujino Building on the Hilo-side of Mamane Street, which, after an 18-month renovation, now houses the Fish &Poi Co., as well as Lieu’s CreaProducts Studio and a vacation rental unit. A shave ice store is also planned, where she hopes to work with kids and help them learn entrepreneurship.

Lieu said that what sets the new restaurant apart is the fresh, scratch-made poke from the fish market daily, delicious lau and Hawaiian food, and Penn’s Ono Poi. High in vitamins, minerals and enzymes, poi is easily digestible, gluten free and hypoallergenic.

“Poi is a probiotic. It has a lot of benefits that people don’t know about,” said Lieu. “We want to share it with the town and all the tourists who come here.”

Along the way, Lieu also found time to become an author and motivational speaker. How does she do it all?

“Once I found something I was passionate on, I found I can be passionate in other things,” she said. “Surfing, Tahitian dancing, whatever I feel joy in doing, I do it.”

Fish and Poi Co. is open daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Info: www.facebook.com/fishandpoico

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