What You Need to Know About the “Aloha Poke” Controversy
For native and ethnic Hawaiians, the word “Aloha” means more than the commonly understood greeting and farewell.
The word is a kind of ethos, and insight into a particular way of life frequently referred to as “The Aloha Spirit.” If we break down the word further there are three component parts: ‘alo’ which means sharing, ‘oha’ which means joy, and ‘ha’ which means life/breath. When accounting for the grammatical rules of the language, aloha translates into the philosophy “joyfully sharing life.” Ironically, however, the word “Aloha” is involved in a recent federal trademark dispute this past July.
Aloha Poke Co.
Aloha Poke Co. is a Chicago-based restaurant chain that had a two-year-old federal trademark on the name and recently began sending cease and desist letters to businesses with title similarities. Some of these businesses included local favorites owned by Native Hawaiians, like the Honolulu-based Aloha Poke Shop. The owner of this downtown Honolulu shop, Jeff Sampson, ignored the letter and remarked that he was offended foreign businesses were able to trademark a name like that, seeing it as trademarking an entire language. Other restaurants did not stand up in the same way and bent under the pressure of potential lawsuits. These include a poke restaurant in Bellingham, WA and another native-Hawaiian shop in Anchorage, AK. The latter, although avoiding lawsuit, still incurred great expenses in the thousands to adapt logos, advertising, signage, and marketing, after changing their name to “Lei’s Poke Stop.”
The Aloha Poke Company faced notable public backlash after a Hawaiian activist Kalamaokaaina Niheu created a viral Facebook video that emphasized strong-arm techniques of Aloha Poke Co. Highlighting of Aloha Poke Co.’s trademark activity sparked outrage, and Niheu had garnered more than a hundred and fifty thousand signatures for a petition. The activist also organized a rally with American indigenous supporters at multiple Aloha Poke locations in Lincoln Park, downtown Chicago, and at their headquarters. Critics are also aiming poor reviews on Yelp, and there are calls for a boycott.
In a response statement by Aloha Poke Co. CEO Chris Birkinshaw, he explained that the company did not demand Hawaiian Natives to stop using the words “Aloha” and “Poke.” He claims the trademark is a legal attempt to avoid confusion in the US restaurant industry. The trademark would inhibit trademark infringers exclusively within the context of restaurant services from using “Aloha Poke” together without explicit permission. The statement emphasizes that restaurants that received a trademark notice have complied cooperatively in changing their name and that Aloha Poke’s activities have not caused one single business to close its doors. The CEO focused on the commonality of the practice across industries and in particular restaurant industries. Birkinshaw also apologizes in the statement to those who care deeply about the Hawaiian language and that the company’s intentions were never to disrespect the Hawaiian culture.
What do you think?
I have written this article with the goal of omitting bias. I think it’s worth mentioning that I am native Hawaiian in ancestry. I also am a poke enthusiast. Despite my personal stake in the issue, I would love to hear your opinion. Do you think it’s reasonable for a business to trademark the term Aloha Poke? What course of action do you think would be best to take? Please discuss below! Would you like to see more posts like this from me?
*Images for this post were provided with permission from It’s Raw Poke Shop.
August 27, 2018 @ 2:54 am
I just want to mention, that if you are in San Diego, I give my Hawaiian recommendation to visit It’s Raw Poke Shop. I started out as their customer. Now we work together often. They occasionally pay me with poke.
August 28, 2018 @ 5:21 am
The issues are not Aloha Poke Co in Chicago’s use of Aloha Poke in their company name, using Native Hawaiian language, selling poke (pronounced poh-keh), not being Native Hawaiian, or not even being from Hawaii. Others from all over the world (from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Austria, England, Washington, California, Nevada, New York, etc.) use “Aloha Poke” in their company name, sell poke (their version of it), most are not Native Hawaiian, and most of them are not from Hawaii. Native Hawaiians and others have shared the Hawaiian culture all over the world.
The issues are that they (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) trademarked 2 commonly used Hawaiian words that were already in use before they (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) even existed, then to send cease and desist letters to other companies (in Alaska, Washington, Texas, Hawaii, and other places) some of which had the name Aloha Poke in their business name before this company did. And to top that, to demand that these companies stop using “ALOHA” in any of their materials (business name, logo, signage, business cards, photographs, social media accounts, emails, bochures, menus, etc.). So, for example, these companies wouldn’t be able to say/post/advertise, “Poke served with Aloha”, “Serving Poke with Aloha”. “Service with Aloha”, “Aloha Served Here”, or “Aloha ………..” in any part of their business material without the possibly of being sued by this Aloha Poke Co in Chicago. Their cease and desist letters basically states that they can take legal action against ANY poke (a Hawaiian raw fish dish) or seafood company (even if they didn’t have Aloha Poke in their business name), for using “ALOHA” in any of their business materials. Also, by sending their cease and desist letters and telling these other poke companies that by using “ALOHA” you are infringing on our trademark, they are saying that they have trademarked “ALOHA” even if they haven’t legally done so. When Tasha Kahele, the owner of Lei’s Poke Stop (formerly Aloha Poke Stop) in Anchorage Alaska called the law firm that sent out the cease and desist letters, telling them that she was Native Hawaiian and that “ALOHA” has a deep cultural meaning to Hawaiians, asking them if they knew the meaning of “ALOHA”, she was told by them that IT WAS IRRELEVANT and that THEY OWNED IT, “ALOHA” and that they are going to go after anyone that uses it, “ALOHA”. That sounds like they are telling these other poke companies that they did indeed trademark “ALOHA” and that they owned it. Of course, they didn’t have the right to do that because the trademark didn’t give them that right, but they are bullying / itimidating these much smaller businesses to change their name (remove “Aloha Poke”) and stop using “ALOHA” in any of their business materials (signage, menu, bochures, etc.) They are telling Native Hawaiians that own poke companies that they cannot use their own language in their business. It’s like Hola Taco Co telling Mexican owned restaurants that sells tacos, they can’t use the word “HOLA” in any of their business materials (menu, bochures, signage, logos, etc.) It’s also like Welcome Burgers Company sending cease and desist letters to other burger restaurants demanding that they cease using “Welcome” in any of their business name, logos, signage, social media sites, etc., and threatening legal action against those companies for doing so. That is what their cease and desist letters are saying. Many of these smaller (family owned, Native Hawaiian owned) businesses do not have the finances to lawyer up and fight this in the courts, which they have threatened to do. Some have already rebranded (such as the one in Alaska) at great financial difficulty to themselves. This is a David vs Goliath situation. They should have never been given approval to trademark 2 commonly used Hawaiian words, “Aloha” and “Poke” by themselves or together. They neither created the brand (poke) nor the name, “Aloha Poke”. As mentioned, there were several companies already using the name “Aloha Poke” in their business name, bochure, social media accounts (facebook, instragram, twitter, etc.) before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago even existed. They probably knew this because when you search the internet you will find these other Aloha Poke companies that existed before them. They decided to SELFISHLY take advantage of this and trademark “Aloha Poke”, 2 commonly used Hawaiian words. Then to try and prevent other poke companies including Native Hawaiian owned from using their own language, “ALOHA” in their business, that is not PONO (right). Aloha Poke Co in Chicago has no real understanding nor appreciation of ALOHA, of the cultural (Hawaiian), the food (poke) and language (Aloha Poke – Olelo Hawaii) from which they had taken from. That is the issue with the Native Hawaiian community, Hawaii’s people, and those that appreciate the Hawaiian culture and food (poke). ALOHA is to be SHARED with ALL and not (so called) owned by 1 company (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago). Doing a Facebook search, you will find that there are over 40+ DIFFERENT poke restaurants (nationally, internationally, and in Hawaii) that have the name “Aloha Poke” or have “Aloha Poke as part of their name. I counted at least 4 or 5 “Aloha Poke” companies having the name before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago. Also, there are lots of poke / seafood restaurants that use “Aloha” in their business materials (signage, logo, menu, brochure, etc). Will Aloha Poke Co in Chicago eventually go after those other companies. The answer is probably most definitely YES. That is why we are fighting to take back “Aloha Poke” from Aloha Poke Co in Chicago by having them cancel the trademark or take legal action to have the trademark removed, through spreading the mo’olelo (story) of what this company is trying to do. Aloha Poke Co in Chicago has NO ALOHA. ALOHA is NOT for sale. ALOHA is for ALL.
In his (so called) apology statement, Mr Friedlander or Mr. Birkinshaw said that they were not preventing anyone from using “Aloha” (by itself) in their poke business, but that is exactly what they were trying to do. He also stated that all those companies that received the cease and desist letters complied, which wasn’t true as well.
As I mentioned to someone else, no one is being sued (as of yet) by Aloha Poke Co in Chicago as far as we can tell, but the threat of being sued have caused (so far) 2 poke (pronounced – poh-keh) restaurants (1 in Alaska and 1 in Washington) to rebrand. 1 of the rebranding cost over $10,000. For small businesses (family owned, Native Hawaiian owned) that’s alot of money that have caused some financial difficulties. These poke restaurants felt that they had no other choice but to take the least expensive route to rebrand (change their name, signage, business cards, website, facebook account, logo, etc.) then to fight this in the courts where it could cost them into the multiple of 10s of thousands of dollars (maybe $50,000, maybe $75,000, or maybe $100,000+ , ??????). The petitions (close to 175,000 people (so far) have signed the petition), the protest and marches are to bring awareness to the greater community, the good people of Chicago and the world at large of what Aloha Poke Co in Chicago is doing, to give them an opportunity to make a real apology, to cancel their trademark on Aloha Poke and take back (if you will) “Aloha Poke” from Aloha Poke Co in Chicago because they have NO ALOHA. As I mentioned earlier, there were already 4 or 5 poke restaurants already using “Aloha Poke” in their business name before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago even existed. Now there are over 40+ different poke restaurants worldwide that uses “Aloha Poke” in their business name. So, they never created the name “Aloha Poke” They just took what was not theirs, trademarked it, and tried to make it their own. As mentioned, the Native Hawaiians had no problem with them (before this) using the name “Aloha Poke”, using their Native Hawaiian language, selling poke, not being Native Hawaiian, or not being from Hawaii. The issue arose with their cease and desist letters that were sent out demanding that these other poke companies remove “Aloha Poke” from their business names. The bigger issue is that they were demanding that these poke companies (including Native Hawaiian owned) remove “ALOHA” from all their business materials. To a Native Hawaiian that is HEWA (wrong/offensive). To Native Hawaiians, ALOHA is not just a word, it’s a way of live, it’s their Cultural, It’s in their Hula (Hawaiian Dance), it’s in their music, it’s basically their breath of life. To have someone (a company like Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) tell Native Hawaiians to remove “ALOHA” (their breath of life) from their business is not PONO (right). If the Aloha Poke Co in Chicago does not comply amicably, then the next step will be legal action with the help of Native Hawaiian organizations (in Hawaii and Nationally), other poke businesses, and other organizations and peoples willing to assist. Mahalo Nui Loa (Thank you very much) to those that have been listening and becoming aware of what have been going on with this issue.
A company cannot survive on bad publicity for long without it affecting their bottom line. We will never reach everyone or bring everyone over to our side. That will never be, but by bringing awareness to what Aloha Poke Co in Chicago is doing, I’m sure we have reached a lot of people who would have gone to Aloha Poke Co in Chicago and their other locations before this, but have now decided not to go. Our intention is to spread the mo’olelo (story) and hope others will truly understand what is going on and stand with Native Hawaiians, Hawaii’s people, and those that appreciate the Hawaiian Culture and Poke (Native Hawaiian raw fish dish). ALOHA is NOT for sale, ALOHA is for ALL. Mahalo Nui Loa (Thank you very much) for the good people of Chicago and outlying communities, others throughout the mainland United States, and people of the world for standing with Native Hawaiians and letting Aloha Poke Co in Chicago know that they cannot do what they say they haven’t but have through their cease and desist letters. Say NO to Aloha Poke Co
August 28, 2018 @ 7:43 am
Wow, Leonard. I really appreciate your feedback. Righteous! Mahalos.
December 20, 2018 @ 10:09 pm
I concur with the above contentions. To trademark the word Poke is trademarking the word “steak”, burger” or “ice cream”. Choose any city in the world and google “steak” and see the countless number of restaurants using the word “steak” in their name. Do the same for “Burger” and “ice cream”.
Further more to trademark the word ALOHA is not only hewa because what it means, but it’s also where we live, we live in our ALOHA,. Again I make the argument, it’s like trying to trademark the word “Happy” or “Love”. Yelp that and see what comes up under restaurant s.
Had he named his shop “Friedlander’s Aloha Poke (w/ a kahako over the e) using his proper name as part of his business name and trademarked the entire name (all 3 works as one name), then, I don’t think anyone would have been offended.
August 30, 2018 @ 7:53 pm
I’ll have to check out It’s Raw Poke Shop! I’ve been living in San Diego for years and have been trying to find a good poke place. Thanks for the recommendation Joseph!
August 30, 2018 @ 8:10 pm
Excellent post. Very fact based and unbaised.
It really is stupid that this restaurant would try and own the words Poke Aloha when they are far from the first to use them. I wonder what the exact legality of that is. Seems…fishy…if you ask me.