Since the 1960s, the United States has been the top destination for immigration in the world. One out of every five immigrants in the world live here, whether they are permanent residents, undocumented, naturalized citizens, or refugees from war-torn homes. The 2016 census determined that 43.7 million people – 13.5% – in the US are immigrants (Source).
But numbers don’t tell stories. If you want to really understand about immigration, you need to hear first-hand the stories they have to tell. I recently had an opportunity to interview Hyrum Pauni, the co-owner of Pauni Island Grill, and learn a bit about his experiences coming the US.
Coming From Tonga
Born in Tonga, Hyrum’s parents came to the United States in 1997 to seek better educational opportunities for their children. They first stopped in American Samoa, where some of Hyrum’s siblings were born, then moved to Cache Valley, where they started school.
“It’s very different here,” Hyrum told me. “In Tonga, or any island, it’s a very laid back lifestyle. Nobody is ever in a rush. It was very hard to learn English and I fought about a lot of things, going to school, focusing on classes. It was difficult to adjust to schedules, but it was something we had to do.”
Starting the Family Business
In 2000, when Hyrum was six-years-old, his parents started their business.
“My mom loves to cook and my dad wanted us to keep our culture and taught us the dances of the Polynesian islands. We combined the two. My mom started cooking out of her home and we would dance for customers. After that, we did performances for a few fairs. My dad realized that there was potential for a business in catering and entertainment.
It wasn’t easy. Pauni Island Grill started their business with just one trailer to cook from. Plain, and undecorated, their operation was, in his own words, “pretty ghetto.” Over time, with lots of hard work and some good luck, the business has expanded. They now own two trucks, fully equipped for catering and entertainment. They do big parties all over the valley and beyond. As far south as Saint George, as far north as Boise, Idaho, east into Colorado, and occasionally going all the way to California, the Pauni Family business really gets around.
“We’ve grown a lot in the last five years.”
Pauni Island Grill and Catering bases it’s entire business around the their native culture. It’s not just authentic food, but also authentic dancing and entertainment that they offer to their customers. Those dances aren’t just for show, however; they serve as a visual demonstration of the islands’ interactions with each other.
“Each island (in the Polynesian chain) has it’s own unique way of performing,” Hyrum explains. “They tell their stories through the dances. In Hawaii, they are a happy and outgoing people, so they are mostly hula oriented. Go to New Zealand and their dances are more fierce. They fought a lot of battles, so their dances are telling you about wars. The island of Tonga where we come from is more graceful and slow. You go to Samoa, it’s more exciting and upbeat. You get fire dancing from there.”
Sharing Their Culture
Over the years, Pauni Island Grill has done thousands of shows. Sometimes, it’s just a few members of the family that handle an event. One of Hyrum’s siblings and their children will take care of the small parties, like birthdays, or anniversaries. If they get contracted by bigger companies – like the Wal-Mart in Brigham City to name an example – it becomes a full-family affair.
But Hyrum will be quick to tell you that his business likes to specialize in small places where people wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to experience Polynesian culture.
“It’s mostly in little towns, or cities that don’t have a lot of Polynesians living there. That’s where we’re most successful. I think a lot of the reason for the pick up is because we are family oriented and we offer services that aren’t available to local people. People will pay thousands of dollars to go to Hawaii, but we can bring the excitement of that kind of environment to your backyard. We’ll have a luau right there!”
Looking Forward to the Future
“When my dad passed away, I took over the coordinating,” Hyrum told me. “My dad wanted us to preserve our culture. Now, it’s mostly my siblings and their grandkids. We’ve tried to pass down the culture of the dances from generation to generation. Our aim is for every member of the family who wants to stay in the business to own his own food trailer.”
Things are looking good for Pauni Island Grill and Catering these days. With expanding interests in Polynesian culture, a business willing to provide good food and exciting dances at good prices to local events has a lot of room to grow. Whether it’s weddings, birthday parties, graduation celebrations, or company picnics, they have a unique gift to offer the community.