Chicago born food chain Aloha Poke Co. became the subject of massive criticism and scrutiny after it reportedly began waging a legal war over trademarking the word “Aloha.” Aloha is a common greeting used in today’s Hawaii, but has a cultural history and meaning akin to love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. It has since become a part of America’s cultural lexicon and carries an inherent association with the island state.
In recent years, Hawaii has also seen another of its treasures gain popularity. Poke, a type of raw fish salad served over rice, has also gained a huge following throughout North America. In metropolitan centers like New York and Chicago, specialty poke shops have been popping up everywhere.
In an attempt to solidify their brand and trademark, Aloha Poke Co. sent cease and desist letters to other poke businesses across the nation, but the bold move has quickly evolved into a PR nightmare.
As multiple poke businesses, many of them with family roots and ties to Hawaii, angrily vented about losing the rights to the association between a Hawaiian greeting with a Hawaiian dish, Aloha Poke Co. found itself accused of cultural appropriation and whitewashing.
Fairhaven Poke owner David Jacobsen of Washington state accused Aloha Poke Co. founder Zach Friedlander of “trying to exploit and capitalize on the recent popularity” of Hawaiian culture and cuisine.
Of the word Aloha and its significance, he said, “It is a spiritual way of life and something we feel should be shared and spread rather than restricted in use. You may trademark the name but you can’t trademark the spirit!”
Tasha Kahele, who ran The Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage Alaska felt pressured to change her business’s name after receiving the intimidating letter.
Of the word’s significance to her family, Kahele said: “The aloha spirit is very unique to our culture. 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.”
The company’s draconian attempts to trademark the words Aloha and Poke in combination with one another even threatened restaurants actually located in Hawaii.
Jeff Sampson, owner of Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, recalls receiving a letter in January that read, “You can understand how your use of the word ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ is confusingly the same as Aloha Poke’s … trademark. We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’”
Sampson found the effort both ridiculous and moronic, declaring, “Everything’s called ‘Aloha’ in Hawaii. There’s Aloha store, Aloha mortgage company. Poke is like pizza. … There’s a million poke shops out here.”
Hawaiian legislator Kaniela Ing posted an impassioned video on social media, calling for a boycott of Aloha Poke Co.
A poke bowl shop owner in the Midwest thinks he owns the word “Aloha.” He’s even suing Native Hawaiians. Here’s my response:
— Kaniela Ing (@KanielaIng) July 29, 2018
Aloha Poke Co. founder Zach Friedlander’s attempts to run damage control were largely unsuccessful. He became a target for Internet rage, activism, and outright trolling.
In a Facebook status, Friedlander, who is no longer affiliated with the business he helped found, wrote: “Over the past 48 hours, there has been an incredible amount of misinformation shared throughout social media regarding Aloha Poke Co. and efforts taken to protect, as any business would, its brand. I am deeply saddened by the reaction that some have taken regarding this situation.”
“I am truly sorry that anyone, especially native Hawaiians, have been offended by this situation,” he added. “I want them to know that I have nothing but love and respect for them.”
Still, Friedlander also concluded: “It’s so sad. These people really have no actual idea what they’re fighting about.”
Aloha Poke Co. has strongly rejected accusations of it trying to claim the word Aloha for itself, maintaining that it only sought to control the use of the word “Aloha” with the word “Poke.” However, as quoted above, the letter sent to Jeff Sampson in Honolulu demanded that he “immediately stop all use of “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” (emphasis ours).
Alas, this looks to be a bad flavor that won’t so easily be cleansed from the palate of public imagination.