Aloha Poke Co. Detractors Claim Cultural Appropriation

The Volcano Bowl at Aloha Poke Co.EXPAND
The Volcano Bowl at Aloha Poke Co.
Mark Antonation
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Something fishy is going on in the trendy Hawaiian-style poke business. Chicago restaurant chain Aloha Poke Co., which maintains one Denver location inside Zeppelin Station, has been receiving criticism for its recent attempts to defend its "Aloha Poke" trademark. The company was founded in 2016, when it also received the federal trademark, and since then, it has sent legal notices to several other restaurants around the country, some in Hawaii, that also use the phrase "Aloha Poke" in their names, demanding that they remove the phrase from anything related to making or selling food.

The company has come under fire on Yelp, Facebook and Twitter since Hawaiian activists and politicians began pointing out that "aloha" and "poke" are part of the Hawaiian language and culture and that Aloha Poke Co.'s use of both constitutes cultural appropriation.

One Hawaiian woman, Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu, the Hawaii representative for the Pacific Caucus at the United Nations, started her own Change.org petition to "call upon Aloha Poke Company, LLC to 'cease and desist' from the use of the words 'Aloha', 'Aloha Poke' and 'Poke' from all current and future businesses," on the basis that the words "belong to the whole Hawaiian culture — not to a U.S. company in Chicago."

Aloha Poke Co. is hangin' loose in Zeppelin Station.EXPAND
Aloha Poke Co. is hangin' loose in Zeppelin Station.
Danielle Lirette

And on Twitter, Hawaii state representative Kaniela Ing posted a video explaining the importance of the word "aloha" to Hawaiian culture and stating that the owner of Aloha Poke Co. has been "suing or threatening lawsuits against anyone who uses the word ‘aloha,’ including a gag order on a native Hawaiian family."

In response, Aloha Poke Co. took to social media, posting the following defense on Facebook on July 30:

Over the past 48 hours, a significant amount of misinformation about Aloha Poke Co. has been shared on social media. We know that this misinformation has caused a considerable amount of anger and offense among those who care very passionately about their Hawaiian culture. First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering. It is our sincere hope that this statement can set the record straight and address valid concerns raised by many individuals around issues that are very personal to them.

Perhaps the most important issue that needs to be set straight is the false assertion that Aloha Poke Co. has attempted to own either the word “Aloha" or the word “Poke”. Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so. Not ever. We will explain more about this below.

Second, there is zero truth to the assertion that we have attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke. This simply has not happened, nor will it happen. We truly celebrate Hawaiian culture and what makes it so wonderful, which is very much the reason why we branded our business as we did.

Third, it is entirely false that we have either sued businesses for using the word Aloha or the word Poke or sought a “gag order“ on anyone for using the words. We honestly do not know how either claim came to be, but this is simply not true. What we have done is attempted to stop trademark infringers in the restaurant industry from using the trademark “Aloha Poke” without permission. This is a very common practice used across industries, and in particular, in the restaurant industry to protect the use of a business’ name and brand.

To this point, the company holds two federal trademarks for its design logo and the words “Aloha Poke” for use in connection with restaurants, catering and take out services. This means that the company has the exclusive right to use those words together in connection with restaurant services within the US. This trademark does not prevent another person or entity from using the word Aloha alone or the word Poke alone in any instance.

In the rare instance where we have needed to send notices to those using our trademark in the restaurant industry, we have done so in a cooperative manner, and all have complied with our request to rebrand without any resulting legal action. Not a single business has closed as a result of this.

We respect and understand the concerns that have been raised around these false and misleading claims. We have been moved by the passionate defense of the Hawaiian culture displayed throughout social media and want nothing more than to assure everyone of the facts in these matters. We are truly sorry for all of the confusion that this has caused.

However, Ing also posted a copy of a letter on his Twitter feed from Aloha Poke Co.'s legal representatives to Jeffrey L. Sampson, owner of Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, which states: "Your use of 'Aloha' and 'Aloha Poke' in promoting, marketing and selling your food, products and services is a direct infringement of Aloha Poke's registered and valuable ALOHA POKE® and ALOHA POKE CO® trademarks." So even though Aloha Poke claims it isn't attempting to own the word "Aloha," the letter appears to indicate otherwise.

Another restaurant, formerly called Aloha Poke, in Bellingham, Washington, changed its name to Fairhaven Poke after receiving a similar letter from the Chicago company. The Bellingham eatery explained the change on its own Facebook page, noting that "Zach Friedlander, the owner of Aloha Poke Co., has aggressive plans for expansion and is trying to exploit and capitalize on the recent popularity of poke. He filed for and was granted a registered trademark patent on the words “Aloha Poke” shortly after we opened last year." (Friedlander has since left Aloha Poke Co., and its CEO is now Chris Birkinshaw.)

Here in Denver, Aloha Poke Co.'s Yelp page is on "active cleanup alert" after a barrage of one-star reviews hit over the past few days. (Prior to July 28, there hadn't been a review posted since May 15.) Niheu's online petition, in the meantime, has generated more than 132,000 signatures. 

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