Emily Buckley, editor in chief
Seneti Pauni and her late husband Fauniteni immigrated to Cache Valley, by way of American Samoa, in 1991 from their homeland of Tonga with dreams of providing their children with a better education. He ran a landscaping business while she was busy raising their nine children: Hyrum, Spencer, Atileouma, Siu Jane, Viliamisio, Siaosi, Ilaise, Latu, and Simone.
Together, they started a catering business in 2002 when Salt Lake City hosted the Olympics Games. Pauni Island Catering was small but successful from the get-go — the family cooked and served from tents at fairs and community events across Utah and into Idaho.
They also provided entertainment in the form of stories and dancing from all six of the Polynesian islands for weddings, corporate events, and other gatherings. “It was a way to contribute to the family income and to share the traditions of our native island,” Seneti said.
Tragically, Fauniteni unexpectedly passed away after a heart attack in 2004. “I understood that I would be the main provider for our family, so I had to do something,” Seneti said. “I continued with the catering business, with the help of my children.”
In 2006 the Pauni family was selected to be featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. They were recipients of a new home, built in just one week with the help of many Cache Valley businesses and community members. The house included a commercial kitchen and dance studio, which was important for their catering and Polynesian entertainment business.
Seneti purchased her first food trailer in 2008. “From there things were getting better,” Seneti said. “I was able to start picking up more business, and in 2017 I purchased my second trailer, so now we can handle more than one event at a time.”
As business continued to grow, people they served at fairs and Utah State University and Weber State University sporting events frequently asked Seneti where her restaurant was and were always surprised when she said she didn’t have one. So, last year she began looking for a location. In March of this year, she came across a location at 400 North 20 West in Logan. The family spent three weeks renovating the space to fit their needs and officially opened in early April.
“People ask me if I am scared or nervous,” Seneti said. “But no, it is just normal. I have been doing this for almost 20 years. Only now I have a physical location.”
The family now includes the wives and husbands of her children and 19 grandchildren (with two more babies on the way this summer). They work together to keep the catering and entertainment, food truck, and restaurant running smoothly. They are also working on labeling and distributing their teriyaki sauce.
“These are authentic family recipes.” Seneti said, although she admits that she didn’t grow up loving to cook. “When I was first married, I cried because I didn’t know how to cook. When I was a child, my dad would tell me to learn how to cook, but I avoided it. I had seen it, but I hadn’t done it hands on. I had to learn the hard way.”
Some families who experience struggles like the Paunis have do not remain close, but spend just a few minutes in their company and you can tell that is not the case. Instead, there is lots of visiting, laughing, teasing, and hugging making their love apparent.
“I was blessed with kids who are willing to help, Seneti said. “They saw how I struggled to provide for our family.” Although many of her married children have other professions now, all of them are still involved with the family business and the grandchildren are now often the highlight of the Polynesian shows at their catering events.
Seneti says she has kept her family close by holding monthly family meetings where they celebrate family birthdays and talk about how they can support each other with different events that are going on in each of their lives. “I grew up in a family that was very close like that, and I’ve raised my kids the same way. I’ve also taught them to work together. Anytime any of us needs help, we can just ask, and the family comes together.”
Trademark Pauni dishes include Suka chicken, chicken curry, sweet and sour meatballs, island-style Kalua pork, Lu Pulu (green spinach and corn beef baked in coconut milk) and desserts like strawberry delight, guava cake, and pineapple upside-down cake. As they say, “If it is good food you love, good food is what we provide,” so stop by their new restaurant or visit their food truck at a local fair or Aggie sporting event and see for yourself.