Native Hawai’ians and other Indigenous peoples cry foul after Chicago-based “Aloha Poke” stakes claim to Hawai’ian word
Should aloha — which many Native Hawai’ians say is emblematic of Hawai’ian culture — be trademarked? That’s the question on the minds of Native Hawai’ians and other Indigenous peoples after the Chicago-based restaurant firm “Aloha Poke Co.” threatened to sue several mom-and-pop poke shops — many based in Hawaii — that use aloha in their name.
Aloha Poke Co., a restaurant chain selling a version of the Hawai’ian dish featuring cubed sushi-style fish, limu (seaweed), and various seasonings, opened its doors in 2016, and obtained copyright protection for its name and logo. The firm is owned by several partners, including co-founders Zach Friedlander [who has since left the company, and it’s unclear whether he continues as an owner after examining publicly available documents], Alvin Kang and Vinh Nguyen, and investment firms Lakeview Investments and Levy Family Partners — and none of the owners or senior managers are believed to be Native Hawai’ians.
After the copyright was approved, attorneys for the Chicago-based firm began sending out cease-and-desist letters to other shops with the same name. Many of those are owned and operated by Native Hawai’ians or non-Hawai’ians with significant ties to the island state. None of them are big-money operations.
Bellingham, Washington-based Fairhaven Poke was one business that took a financial hit after being ordered to change their name from Aloha Poke in 2017. “As a small business owner just starting out, we were in no position to take this to court,” says co-owner David Jacobson, who’s not Native Hawai’ian but was born and raised there.
Jeffrey Sampson says he has Cherokee heritage and was born and raised in Hawai’i. Sampson and two friends, one of whom hails from Guam and the other Hawai’i, own and operate Aloha Poke 808 in downtown Honolulu. His letter, which is nearly identical to letters received by other poke shop owners, was dated Jan. 17, 2018—the anniversary of the overthrow of Hawai’i by the United States.
The letter states in part, “We…request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ in association with selling your food, products and services, and destroy all packaging, marketing materials, advertising, photographs, Internet usage, and all other materials and things that bear the designation of ‘Aloha’ or ‘Aloha Poke.’"
The Office of Hawai’ian Affairs issued a statement condemning the harassment “The commercialization and exploitation of Native Hawaiian traditional knowledge has been an issue for generations,” OHA’s CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe wrote. “At the heart of the issue are trademark laws that present substantial challenges for protecting our culture and promoting its pono (appropriate) use.” Congressional candidate Kaniela Ing also weighed in.
“I’m stunned,” says Carole Lanialoha Lee-Sumberg, pelekikena (president) of Ke Aliʻi Victoria Kaʻiulani Hawaiian Civic Club of Chicago. “It’s so clear to me that this country we live in can still accept chauvinism and entitlement. What’s next, are they going to tell me I don’t own my own name?” Lee-Sumberg adds that the local Native community has been supportive, and she’s reached out to the group who have been advocating for Chicago to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day to help strategize next steps. “I’m going to hold [the Aloha Poke Company] accountable,” Lee-Sumberg says.
“I’m really surprised they chose a name that’s not the strongest brand,” says Anthony Verna, a New Jersey-based copyright attorney who’s not associated with this case. “There probably were other Aloha Poke shops out there [at the time the trademark was applied for].” Verna says that the first thing his firm does is a trademark search, which in this case would have shown how commonly “Aloha Poke” is used for similar businesses. “In this situation, with lots of mom-and-pop stores with the same name, I would have advised my client to find something else.
“Is it worth the PR nightmare?”
It’s certainly been a financial and cultural nightmare for Tasha Kahele, her husband Sean and their six kids. They own and operate Lei’s Poke Stop in Anchorage–but it used to be called Aloha Poke. “We renamed our shop Aloha Poke in April,” says Kahele. “It was originally Aloha Stop ‘n’ Shop.” However, after receiving their letter in May, Kahele and Sean, known locally as “Da Poke Man,” felt that they had no choice but to comply, even though it’s been a huge financial burden to their family of eight. “It’s had a heavy impact on us,” she says.
“To be told I have no rights to my native language feels like a punch in the gut,” Kahele says. “Aloha is our identity, indicative of the kind of people we are. Our language was forbidden to us for years, and this is a direct attack on our culture.” Kahele adds that she has been receiving aloha from every corner of the world, for which she’s grateful.
One Hawai’ian firm is even selling T-shirts, hoodies and ballcaps with the message “Aloha--Not For Sale: No Trademark On Culture” with proceeds going to the Kaheles.
“I knew the guy in Chicago would eventually face some backlash because his actions were contradicting the very name of his company,” says Jacobson. “Had the guy been from Hawai’i, I wouldn’t have had much of a problem with it. The fact that [Friedlander] had absolutely no ties to Hawai’i whatsoever infuriated me.”
Twitter user @SithLordKay posted a screen capture of Friedlander's social media pages with the comment, "This caucasian man created a poke restaurant called aloha poke and is now trying to sue a kanaka maoli family for having the word aloha in their business name. a word in THEIR LANGUAGE. OUR LANGUAGE. with OUR homeland food."
None of Aloha Poke’s owners or managers, including new CEO Chris Birkinshaw, responded to multiple requests for comment from ICT. However, they did release a statement on their Facebook page, where they disputed the poke shop owners’ accounts, saying in part that the company has not “attempted to own either the word ‘Aloha’ or the word ‘Poke.’ Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so.” Nor, the statement continued, did Aloha Poke “tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke.” They also apologized to the Hawai’ian people—an apology that rang false with the thousands who posted replies to the Facebook statement.
In the meantime, another small family poke shop received a letter from Aloha Poke, this time an Asian family in Plano, Texas. Aloha Poke Bowl is owned by Annie Kim, who says via a Facebook Live video that she named her 20-table place in honor of her 23-year-old sister who passed away from an embolism.The small shop is the family’s only source of income, since Kim’s father is suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Sampson has a message for Aloha Poke Co.: “The first thing they should do is make Tasha and her family whole—she told me how bad she was treated,” he says. “You can’t trademark a language or culture.” Sampson also says that he won’t be changing his poke shop’s name any time soon, inviting Aloha Poke to sue him—in Hawai’i.
“I hope no Native Indigenous person in the world ever has to feel like this again,” Kahele says.
Lee-Sumberg agreed, adding, “You cannot take Aloha out of the people!”