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Chicago’s Aloha Poke Faces Boycott Over Hawaiian Cultural Appropriation Claims

A nationwide campaign aims to defend Hawaiian restaurants threatened with cease and desists

Aloha Poke Co.
Aloha Poke Co.’s Lakeview location.
Nick Fochtman
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Last fall, attorneys for Aloha Poke Co., the Chicago chain that’s opened locations across America prepped for its national expansion by sending a batch of cease-and-desist letters to businesses with “aloha” and “poke” in their names. Over the weekend, more letters emerged as a major appropriation related controversy broke out on social media thanks to a viral video. The new letters are now apparently targeting family-owned restaurants run by local and native Hawaiians in their home state.

Activist Dr. Kalamaokaaina Niheu is a kanaka (native Hawaiian) and a physician in Honolulu. She recorded the video on Saturday and in the footage she shared personal feelings about how she feels her culture has been commodified and exploited by mainlanders. She had been contacted by local businesses in Hawai’i who felt threatened and didn’t know how to respond.

“‘Aloha’ is an incredibly cultural significant term for our people,” she said in the video. “It is something that has been completely commercialized and denigrated. In reality it is an incredibly powerful word. To trademark that word and to punish people for the use of this? A Chicago company?”

****UPDATE SIGN OUR PETITION**** TO OUR CHICAGO INDIGENOUS ALLIES This Chicago business has aggressively threatened Kanaka Maoli families with legal action for the use of the word "Aloha" on Fb or businesses. Friedlander currently has a gag order on a KANAKA MAOLI family and has ordered them to cease and desist from the use of a word in our language from being used. When the lawyer was asked if his client even knew what the meaning of aloha was, "he said it was irrelevant and that they owned the rights to it and they were gonna come for anyone who had the word aloha in their business name and were selling poke or any other seafood" Allies in Chicago for Indigenous families struggling to make a living, struggling to perpetrate our culture PLEASE Kako'o by going to the place of business and letting them know WE WILL NOT ACCEPT THIS. Article re prior victims, but the info I'm talking about is more recent Here is the owner's Facebook **Update** Ok, we can go national Kanakas. There's locations all over the United States. Yelp page #NoAlohaPokeCo

Posted by Kalama O Ka Aina on Saturday, July 28, 2018

Last year, one poke restaurant in Washington state changed its name to comply with Aloha Poke’s demands. The company claimed it wanted to reduce confusion between its trademark and other restaurants as the chain prepared for nationwide expansion. The exact nature and language of the company’s letters hasn’t been shared publicly.

The video posted on Saturday ignited social media users from Hawai’i to Chicago. They’ve flooded Aloha Poke’s Yelp and Facebook pages with negative reviews and feedback like “colonizer poke.” Some have taken to personally contacting Aloha Poke founder Zach Friedlander. Friedlander left the company a few months ago as the company hired a former Potbelly executive as CEO who’s focused on expanding the brand. An online petition has emerged demanding Aloha Poke to remove “aloha” and “poke” from its name. Friedlander’s other projects, including working with Christopher Kim on expanding his family’s restaurant, San Soo Korean BBQ, have also been caught in the social media crossfire.

Poke is a dish of raw fish that’s often flavored with soy sauce, sesame oil, or other ingredients. It’s widely available at grocery stores and restaurants in Hawai’i and part of the local cultural identity. Aloha Poke was first to market the dish in Chicago in 2016, serving its version of poke in rice or salad bowls. The chain has gone on to open in other cities including Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, LA, and San Diego. Levy Family Partners saw potential in expansion by investing millions of dollars into the company.

Levy’s fiscal strength is a contrast to the family businesses that are struggling and whose livelihoods are being threatened by these letters, Dr. Niheu said. She delved deeper into the discussion during a Sunday phone interview calling Eater Chicago from Hawai’i. She said laws to discourage the use of Hawaiian language further complicate the issue. Some took those laws as making the native language illegal. It was an attack on native culture as an attempt to force assimilation while colonizers took over the islands, she said. For Niheu, “aloha” is a deeply warm greeting that recognizes someone else’s humanity. Hawaiians often talk about the “aloha spirit” of altruism and working together to survive and flourish.

“I think we are stronger as a people than we ever have been since they initially tried to wipe us out,” Dr. Niheu said. “We were supposed to die, but we didn’t.”

Dr. Niheu wants Chicagoans to know that this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. She’s not only been an activist in her home state, but she said she’s also not oblivious to issues affecting Chicago. Restaurants have a role in gentrification, and Niheu mentioned the plight of Chicago’s people of color, especially on the South and West Sides. It hurts her that “aloha” — a term so important to her identity — is being used as a hammer to speed up gentrification. She vowed to visit Chicago to perhaps protest and work with residents personally. She wouldn’t reveal how many Hawaiian businesses contacted her as she wants to protect them from retaliation.

Aloha Poke corporate hasn’t yet responded to requests for comment and Friedlander left the company months ago. Friedlander issued his own statement on Monday morning. He’s sad and feels there’s a misunderstanding and believes the issue may be resolved within 48 hours.

“When I started this company, I did so out of a passion for this work and an incredible respect for all that ‘aloha’ means, which I incorporate into my every day life,” Friedlander emailed.

Friedlander also mentioned miscommunication:

“Unfortunately, many facts about the company’s name have been left out of the conversation on social media, but more than anything I am truly sorry that anyone, especially native Hawaiians, have been offended by this situation. I want them to know that I have nothing but love and respect for them.”

Social media users sent messages with anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs to Friedlander, a suburban Chicago native who is Jewish. He didn’t comment on the attacks. Niheu said that she respects the anger and emotion, but those remarks aren’t needed. They aren’t the aloha way.

“‘Aloha’ is an incredibly complex, deep, and powerful word to us,” she said “It’s powerful and cultural and we’ll fight tooth and nail to not have it taken from us.”

Aloha Poke Co

843 West Belmont Avenue, , IL 60657 (872) 817-7300 Visit Website