A year after a cultural appropriation controversy over the chain’s trademarking of the word “aloha” angered many native Hawaiians, Chicago’s Aloha Poke Co. is back in the headlines. The chain doesn’t believe the poke bubble has burst and plans to open 100 new locations by the end of 2022 in markets in the Central and Eastern time zones like St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville, Atlanta, and Orlando.
CEO Chris Birkinshaw, in what looks to be his first interview that tackled the controversy, told the Tribune that Aloha Poke Co.’s team was initially confused by the uproar. Last year, native Hawaiian activists grew angry after news that Aloha Poke’s attorneys were sending cease and desist letters to poke shop owners who used the word “aloha” in their restaurants’s names. Native Hawaiians felt the Chicago company was trying to regulate their language and culture. Boycotters have taken to calling Aloha Poke food “Becky Bowls.”
Birkinshaw, who previously worked with Potbelly Sandwiches, told the Tribune that Aloha Poke should have taken a more delicate strategy and they now deploy a more nuanced and situational approach to enforcing its marks. They’re only sending out letters “when there’s a business with the same name in the same market.” One restaurant owner last year told Eater that she felt bullied after receiving a letter because she didn’t think she could afford legal representation and that changing her restaurant’s name would be expensive. The company later issued an apology.
The controversy spread throughout the country. Even Daily Show host Trevor Noah took a swipe at the poke company. Aloha Poke registered two federal trademarks in 2016 to protect its restaurant’s name. Attorneys in 2017 sent letters demanding restaurant owners that used “aloha” in their names change names or face legal action.
Native Hawaiian activist Dr. Kalamaokaaina Niheu brought the issue to many people’s attention in July 2018 via Facebook. She’s not impressed with Birkinshaw’s comments and said on Monday that Aloha Poke “continues to be the poster child of exploitative culinary consumption.” She believes the boycotts were successful in influencing Aloha Poke, a business stacked with restaurant industry titans. The Tribune pointed out that Ari Levy, son of restaurateur Larry Levy (founder of Levy) is an investor. So is SpotHero CEO Mark Lawrence. Aloha Poke’s first location opened in 2016 in Chicago’s French Market. It was founded by a Chicago-area native and the company’s opened locations in Revival Food Hall, Old Town, and others.
“I’m sure that they would love to keep that issue out of the public eye, but the mandate of capitalism is grow or die,” Dr. Niheu said. “It’s a cycle of endless expansion, growth, and consumption.”
Rival FireFin Poke closed all of its stores in October 2017. During the 2016 First Bites Bash, the gala that proceeds Chicago Restaurant week, at least a half a dozen chefs incorporated the raw fish into their dishes served to guests. Three years later, it’s no longer the big thing for many mainlanders, though it’s still a cultural staple in Hawai’i. While Chicagoans may have poke fatigue, markets like Columbus, Ohio; and the Carolinas may not be tired.