Poke Bay Austin’s story goes viral after UT buys its building

Poke Bay did something unprecedented on Tuesday afternoon. The poke shop on the Drag, nestled among the University of Texas buildings, closed for two hours in the middle of the day.

Owners Paul and Priscilla Song needed to restock their restaurant following a lunchtime business crush.

What led to the biggest sales day in company history, which has lasted four and a half years? Was there a $1 poke bowl sale? Was there a story in the news about the health benefits of a raw fish diet?

No, and no. The answer: TikTok.

The Song’s daughter Angelica took to the social media platform on Monday night and posted an emotional plea for people to support her parents’ business in its final weeks.

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Benjamin Suh cooks a dish for a customer at Poke Bay on Wednesday.  The restaurant serves poke bowls made with fresh seafood.

The building that houses Poke Bay and four other businesses at 2001 Guadalupe St. was purchased by the university in December. Businesses will eventually be moved. Angelica tearfully detailed in her video that her parents, who had been active members of the community and fought during the pandemic to keep their small business alive, were going to be left without compensation or help from the university to relocate.

By Tuesday morning, the video had received over 100,000 likes (the number was over 250,000 by Wednesday afternoon). The love didn’t just come from social media. The queue at Poke Bay stretched for most of the day before Paul Song had to wave the white flag and put up a sign saying the business had closed for two hours for restocking.

Priscilla Song serves customers at Poke Bay on Wednesday.  She and her husband, Paul, moved to Austin from Orange County in 2017

Even with the handwritten sign in the window, people kept coming in and asking if they could order food, acknowledging they had seen the TikTok video and offering their condolences.

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Seoul native Paul Song, who moved with his wife to Austin from Orange County in 2017, thanked everyone who came in and asked them to come back at 4 p.m.

He had asked his daughter on Monday not to post the video because he was suspicious of toxic comments on social media and wanted to protect his daughter from any negativity, but the message from Angelica, who works as a product marketing manager for YouTube, turned out to be one of the most positive things in Poke Bay history.

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The Songs opened the restaurant in October 2017 and has built a loyal following of UT students and faculty over the years, even hosting some on-campus events. The success of the venture has sparked the interest of several buyers who, according to Paul Song, offered up to $275,000 to buy Poke Bay before the pandemic.

“We declined because we wanted to be here. We love being here,” said Song, a father of two. “We love interacting with young people. It keeps us young. And we see people graduating and coming and going.

William and Sally Corbett, who operate an LLC that owned the property which has been in their family since 1936, sold the business to the McCombs School of Business Foundation in December 2021. Records indicate the property was then immediately sold to UT . The sale price was not made public and William Corbett told the American statesman that he was not legally authorized to discuss the sale. County tax records value the building at $1.5 million.

“From my landlord’s perspective, UT made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Paul Song said. “I get it, and I got the shorter end of the stick.”

This isn’t the first time an independent restaurant has had to close due to an ownership sale to UT. Burger joint Players suffered the same fate in 2016four years after the university purchased the land on which this campus favorite sat.

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Customers line up at Poke Bay on Wednesday.  The restaurant went viral on TikTok after Angelica Song, the owners' daughter, posted a video pleading for help.

Paul Song said his lease, which was due to end in October, had two five-year option periods. When he approached UT a few months ago about his desire to explore those options and extend his lease, a university representative sent the Songs a letter saying she planned to give them a 60-day notice to terminate later this summer, a provision that was part of the lease.

Paul and Priscilla Song decided that staying open during the depressed economic times of the summer didn’t make sense just to make money in September and October, so they ended their lease early. University required. The restaurant will close at the end of May.

“With UT expanding, I kind of knew it was coming,” Paul Song said. “I get it from a business perspective and I certainly knew what was on the lease. But it’s a bit difficult, because we just went through the pandemic. In that sense, it was hard to swallow.

Asked by the statesman about the future of the building and the possibility of resettlement assistance for displaced businesses, UT spokeswoman Eliska Padilla said in a statement: “While As the university continues to find ways to serve our students, provide additional housing options, and advance our educational mission, we recognize the challenges created by our growth – especially combined with Austin’s growth. We appreciate the role that local businesses play in our campus community, and we will engage them in conversations about other university relocation options.

Song said he and his wife are too busy dealing with their current situation to imagine what the future might hold. They are also emotionally and physically exhausted.

“My wife and I are injured. We are devastated,” Song said. “We are Christians. God brought us here. Maybe he has something else planned for us.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the University of Texas.

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