The white-led Aloha Poke Company of Chicago has sent via its white-led law firm, trademark infringement letters to Hawaiian businesses demanding cease and desist of using “Aloha” and “poke”— staples of Hawaiian culture — to market their Hawaiian restaurants.
Social media users have expressed disgust with a #NoAlohaPokeCo campaign and calls for boycotts of the Chicago-based company; its founders are not Hawaiian.
A petition started by Hawaiians, that calls for the Chicago company to drop their use of the words instead, has over 43,000 signatures and is going viral.
Activists argue that there’s a long history of packaging and commercializing Hawaiian culture, which now includes an attempt to do the same with poke, a traditional dish of raw marinated ahi tuna.
The petition states the Aloha Poke Company is “capitalizing on an Indigenous traditional dish,” and that they are part of a “gentrification, commodification, and cultural appropriation that is criminalizing and driving out poor and people of color from the urban core”— including the Algonquins, the first people of Chicago.
Hawaiian Congressman Kaniela Ing said that it’s bad enough that the word “Aloha” has been commodified over time, but to think that the company can have legal ownership over one of the most profound Hawaiian values is going too far.
“They should be suing you, but they probably won’t because that’s not Aloha,” Ing said.
The cease and desist letters to the small businesses read, in part: “Aloha Poke [Co.] would prefer to settle this matter amicably and without court intervention. We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.'”
Aloha Poke Co. said in a statement there is “zero truth” to claims that Hawaiian-owned businesses can’t use the words “Aloha” or “poke,” just not in their businesses and not together. They said they’re aiming to stop “trademark infringers” and that all who have received letters have complied and no business has closed because of it.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Chicago city councilman said the struggle of native Hawaiians is similar to that of minorities like Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, which is his own heritage.
“Not only do you want to steal someone’s culture and make money off of it, then you want to deny native people of their own ability to have their own livelihood,” he said.
The founder, Zach Friedlander, who is no longer at the company, offered an apology to Hawaiian people, but defended the company.
He admitted last year during an interview (7-minute mark) that his friend who went on a date to Hawaii came back and told him about poke’s popularity and encouraged him to jump onboard. He had little knowledge about the culture or the food at the time.
The company has an Aloha Cares campaign on its site advertising support for bringing the community together and extended a helping hand. However, zero organizations for supporting Hawaiian or Indigenous people are listed.
Tasha Kahele, native Hawaiian owner of the former Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska, ended up in financial strain with tens of thousands spent to change her business’s name.
But others like Jeffrey Sampson, owner of the almost two-year-old luncheonette Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, told the Aloha Poke Company to bring it on.
“They can bring it to Hawaii,” Sampson said. “And, if a judge tells me to take it down, we’ll take it down. Until that happens, that sign stays where it is.”