Midwestern Poke Chain Threatening Legal Action Against Native Hawaiians For Using Their Own Language and Selling Their Own Food

A Midwestern chain of poke stores named Aloha Poke is under fire this week for threatening legal action against Native Hawaiian small businesses who use the words “Aloha” and “Poke” in combination to sell the traditional rice and fish dishes.

Aloha Poke Company — founded by former owner Zach Friedlanderregistered the phrase “aloha poke” as a trademark in January 2016. Now, Aloha Poke Company’s attorneys have sent numerous cease and desist letters to other poke shops named “Aloha Poke” — many of them owned by Native Hawaiian small business owners — demanding that they change their name and branding. Unfortunately, many of those small businesses can’t afford to fight the large chain store in court for the right to use their own language, and have been forced to undergo the costly process of rebranding.

Media outlets report that poke shop owners in Washington, Honolulu, and Alaska have been targeted by threatening cease and desist letters. Tasha Kahele — the owner of the Aloha Poke store in Anchorage, Alaska — announced over the weekend that they felt bullied into changing the name of their small shop. In describing what happened, Kahele told the Chicago Sun-Times that she had to stop using her own language hurt the most:

“The aloha spirit is very unique to our culture,” she said. “It’s the love that we put into our food, it’s the feeling that you get when you walk into our restaurant and you see my family working there, it means a lot to us. So to be told by someone who is using it for pure profit that I can no longer use my own language was very offending and hurtful.”

Native Hawaiian activists have initiated a campaign to push back against Aloha Poke Company, which is based in Chicago. Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu, Hawaii representative for the Pacific Caucus at the United Nations, encouraged Native Hawaiians to go to stores across the country and express their concerns about the actions of the company, and to leave bad reviews on Yelp. Her Facebook post — which first ignited the viral campaign against Aloha Poke Company — spoke about the misappropriation of aloha and poke by the Midwestern company.

Hawaiian House of Representatives member Kaniela Ing also posted a reaction video condemning Aloha Poke Company on Twitter and supporting a boycott of the chain.

Niheu started a Change.org petition demanding that Aloha Poke Company stop using the phrase “aloha” and “poke”, and to stop harassing Native Hawaiian small business owners. That petition has garnered over 20,000 signatures, most of them in the last 24 hours.

Aloha Poke Company issued a statement on Facebook yesterday criticizing the “misinformation” it says has spread about the company over social media while defending that it reserves the sole right to use the phrase “aloha poke” in connection with food service.  Below is the full text of the statement:

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.

Former Aloha Poke Company owner Zach Friedlander also took to social media to condemn the campaign against the company, calling the concerns of Native Hawaiians a “witch hunt” and an example of “false news.”

An earlier version of this post erroneously had the accent over the e in poke. That is incorrect. This post has been updated with the correct spelling.

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