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Aloha Poke Co. Says It’s Protecting Assets as Native Hawaiians Claim Tone Deafness

Read the Chicago chain’s cease and desist letter sent to a Hawaiian poke shop

A poke bowl from Aloha Poke Co.
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.

Chicagoans and Hawaiians alike continue to react to the controversy surrounding Aloha Poke Co., the Chicago-born restaurant chain whose attorneys sent cease and desist messages to poke shop owners in Hawai’i, Alaska, and Washington state demanding they change names by dropping the terms “aloha” and “poke” when used together. While Aloha Poke contends it sent notes in a “cooperative manner” to defend intellectual property, Native Hawaiians feel the poke chain is trying to restrict how they can embrace their own heritage.

Aloha Poke Co.’s social media sites remain in clean-up mode after angry social media users lit up the chain’s Facebook and Yelp sites with negative reviews over the weekend. A new Facebook site, Say No to Aloha Poke Co., has sprouted up. It has edited the chain’s logo with the Hawaiian word pilau which translates to “stinky/rotten,” as in “stinky poke company.”

The company’s statement released on Monday claimed Aloha Poke Co. attorneys haven’t followed through with any legal action nor have they threatened the owners with a gag order — a legal action that only a judge could grant in court. A gag order was something activists alleged was in place over the weekend. A cease-and-desist letter sent to the similarly named Aloha Poke Stop in Alaska described the Anchorage business as “direct infringement” of “registered and valuable” trademarks. Aloha Poke Co. holds two federal marks. Its attorneys are calling out the use of “aloha” and “poke” together. The letter went on to read that they preferred to settle without “court intervention.”

“While we do not seek to interfere with your business or your practice of selling poke cuisine, Aloha Poke cannot let these uses continue without harming its valuable trademark rights in and goodwill associated with its [r]egistered [t]rademarks,” the letter read.

While Aloha Poke Co. made an apology on Monday, the company didn’t say if the weekend’s reactions would alter its legal strategy in sending more cease-and-desist letters. A letter was sent on January 17 to the owner of Aloha Poke Shop in downtown Honolulu, a shop that opened in November 2016. Owner Jeff Sampson told the Honolulu Star Advertiser on Monday that they ignored the letter.

“We live ‘aloha.’ They don’t even know what it means,” Sampson told the newspaper.

Aloha Poke Co. founder Zach Friedlander departed the company months ago as the chain grew and readied itself for a massive expansion and installed a new CEO. Friedlander is Jewish and a suburban Chicago native. When he opened his first restaurant in 2016, he believed he was paying homage to Hawaiian culture and sharing the aloha spirit in the Midwest where the weather can be dreary and positive mental attitude is needed during the winter. He’s no longer involved in the company, but he developed the brand. He’s now caught in a sea of insults with social media users — whether genuine protesters or Internet trolls — who are taking the opportunity to shell out both constructive criticism or, at worst, anti-Semitic slurs.

Dr. Kalamaokaaina Niheu, the activist who ignited the protests through her viral video posted on Saturday, told Eater Chicago that Aloha Poke was protecting its trademark because officials felt they could make a lot of money. They underestimated how much those terms meant to the ancestors of the people who created those vibes. She’s started a petition to have Aloha Poke Co. change its name with more than 20,000 names as of Tuesday morning.

This isn’t the first time Niheu’s seen something like this. She mentioned a 2007 lawsuit filed by photographer Kim Taylor Reece against a Hawaiian museum. The museum had a stained glass display that resembled one of Reece’s photographs, an image of a well-known hula pose. Reece won his lawsuit which mandated the museum to pay the photographer if it wanted to keep the display public. Native Hawaiians claimed he was trying to own the pose. The situation reminds Dr. Niheu of Aloha Poke trying to own “aloha.” It’s a sensitive issue for natives: “Why trademark it in the first place?” she said.

Read the cease and desist letter sent by Aloha Poke Co.’s attorneys to the Honolulu poke shop below.

Aloha Poke Co

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