After spending 25 years as a biotech engineer, Keke Lepulu, 47, of Menlo Park, says he was weary of being a cog in the Silicon Valley startup cycle: working hard for a startup until it gets acquired, and then finding himself in search of a job again. This time, he said, he decided to pursue something different.
Luckily for local tastebuds, that something was to expand the gastronomic offerings in town to include Polynesian food.
On March 9, after about a year of careful planning and hard work, he debuted Umu, a food truck serving Polynesian food from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Hawaii, at Kelly Park, located in the Onetta Harris Community Center complex in Belle Haven.
Sales have gone well so far, he said, noting that the truck sold out on its first day.
Umu (the word used to describe a traditional Polynesian earthen oven), started out as just an idea about a year ago, he said.
Since he decided to pursue the business concept in earnest, he has acquired an old truck, designed a full kitchen for its interior, taken it to a shop in Fresno to have the kitchen built, worked with a designer to develop the exterior of the truck, created the menu and gotten trained and licensed in food preparation through the San Mateo County Health Department.
He also did his own market research, surveying his two sons (a junior and senior at Menlo-Atherton High School) and their friends to figure out what menu items would be "hip" and would generate buzz on social media. As for the market itself, he pointed out, there is a significant Polynesian community in eastern Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, yet to his knowledge, the only places to buy Samoan food in the Bay Area are in San Francisco, San Jose and Newark.
While this may be his first foray into the restaurant business, Lepulu says he's spent his entire adult life cooking large quantities of traditional Samoan food. He's from a large Samoan family – he's the youngest of nine kids – and has many extended relatives in the area, who gather often to share meals.
"I'm a cook by default when the family gets together for big gatherings," he said.
During the early days of his business, he said, he plans for family to be a core part of his staff. During the first few days, his wife and sons helped him staff the truck. Family will likely continue to help out, he said, at least until he can hire other employees.
To start, he said, the food truck will operate on Thursdays through Sundays, since he works as a consultant Mondays through Wednesdays.
Although the food truck is registered with Off the Grid, Lepulu said he's hoping to make a go of the eastern Menlo Park location before he begins moving around. He said he lives down the street from the site and sees it as a hub for the local Polynesian community.
For visitors to the truck seeking an authentic dining experience, he says he recommends the palusami, a dish prepared with coconut milk, taro leaves and corned beef. The food truck also offers a sampler plate that offers servings of all four of the truck's main dishes for $20, which will give the customer ample food for two people, he said.
The food truck will operate at the Onetta Harris Community Center parking lot (100 Terminal Avenue in Belle Haven) on Thursdays through Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., or until food runs out.