Fish for the American Dream: Vietnamese American family shares the ohana spirit with Seattle at GoPoké

Rhea Panela January 19, 2017 0

GoPoké opened its doors in the Chinatown International District last December. Their goal is to make customers feel like they are part of the family when they visit. • Courtesy Photo

By the end of 2016, the demand for authentic Hawai‘i-style poké was at high tide across the country—and Seattle was no exception.

In an effort to share a genuine taste of Hawai‘i, one family decided to use their own seafood business to spread the “ohana” spirit with the Seattle community.

“Ohana” means “family” in Hawaiian, and Bayley Le of GoPoké said one of the main focuses of their business is to make sure their customers feel like they are part of a family when they visit.

“How would you treat friends and family who come to your house? You eat,” Le said. “Like, you don’t care if they’ve already had dinner. Everyone’s hugging and spreading a lot of affection. And we see the customers the same way. Like family.”

GoPoké is the newest shop to serve poké in Seattle. Situated on the corner of Maynard Avenue and S King Street, GoPoké is in the heart of the Chinatown International District.

Aside from the fresh ahi, salmon, and tako poké bowls topped with an assortment of island favorites, GoPoké also offers desserts including shaved ice and Dole Whip, a pineapple soft serve topped with li hing mui, a salty dried plum powder.

While customers are often seen lining up to the entrance, day and night, Le said it was difficult to get the business up and running. GoPoké had to flip what had been an old corner-store mini-mart into the bright, welcoming place it is today.

“The first challenge was [thinking] what if people don’t believe in us or if people don’t like our food?” Le said. “People don’t see the fights. With a mini-mart that was two-years vacant, there was much work to be done.”

The Le family’s first long line fishing boat, Stormer Bird. 1988-1990. • Courtesy Photo

However, the influence behind GoPoké stretches years before Le and his family came to the continental United States. Shop owners Bayley, Michael, and Trinh Le come from a family of seven. Their father emigrated from Vietnam and was attracted to Hawai‘i due to the large Vietnamese fishing community there. Their father would go fishing for weeks at a time and when he brought the fish back to shore, it was the rest of the family’s responsibility to sell the fish at markets, auctions, and by going door-to-door.

When their mother learned how to make poké, Le and his brothers would sell poké door-to-door during weekends and after school as well.

“That’s all we did. Our car smelled like fish, our shirts smelled like fish. We wanted to get out of that and we hated it, [because] as 10- and 12-year-old kids, we wanted to play,” Le said. “We were so passionate about it that we hated it.”

For a family of seven kids whose life mostly revolved around selling seafood, they never thought that one day they would open their own poké shop in Seattle. They were on welfare and they received secondhand clothes and belongings from churches. At the time, selling fish was a means of survival.

“You know when your parents struggle and they think the most important thing for the kids is money? We started thinking when we’d have money we could buy our own stuff instead of begging for stuff and getting free stuff from people,” Le said. “Now that we’re older, we see that money doesn’t buy all that.”

Le family in Seattle, 2013. • Courtesy Photo

Le and his siblings made it their goal to get good grades in school and go to college to rise from the harsh circumstances they were in during their childhood.

“My mom and my dad didn’t have money, but they did all they could to keep us together,” Le said. “At the end of the day, you could be a millionaire with money, or be the most wealthy and the most rich with all the love you have, like when people come say, ‘Hi,’ to you every day.”

Now, GoPoké is their way of not only reaching out to the community, but also strengthening the bonds within their own family.

“For those who miss home, or for those who have been to Hawai‘i but it’s hard to go back, you go to these spots because it’s nostalgic,” Le said. “That’s the thing about GoPoké is that we grew as a family through that business, and we stay as a family through that business.”

After almost two months of fighting to acquire the vacant space across from Hing Hay Park, six months of construction, and a little help from their wives for the interior design, GoPoké opened its doors on December 4 of last year. Their grand opening included Hawaiian and Tahitian dancers, lei-making, and music provided by a live DJ. One of their long-term goals is to host an annual community block party in Hing Hay Park with similar Polynesian-inspired performances and activities for everyone to enjoy.

“This business is a total front for us to go out there and just loving everyone and being friends with everyone,” Le said. “This is an excuse for us to invite people to come over to our house and eat.”

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