Aloha Poke Co. has apologized after a video went viral over the weekend accusing the company of “cultural appropriation” and “exploitation” of Hawaiian people.
Hawaiian activist Dr. Kalama O Ka Aina posted the video Saturday calling out the Chicago-based company, which was started in 2016 by Illinois-native Zach Friedlander, for reportedly sending cease and desist letters to other eateries with similar names, demanding they no longer use “aloha” or “poke” together.
The Midwest chain claims the letters were sent in a “cooperative manner,” but native Hawaiians feel the company is trying to steal their identity and limit how they express themselves.
An Aloha Poke Stop restaurant in Alaska received one of the cease and desist letters, which informed the business it was in “direct infringement” of “registered and valuable” trademarks, and that maintaining the name would cause customers to “likely be confused and mistakenly believe that your food, products and services” are related to Aloha Poke Co.
Aloha Poke Shop owner Jeff Sampson also received a cease and desist order. He told the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper, “We live ‘aloha.’ They don’t even know what it means.”
Sampson, who opened his business in 2016, told the newspaper that he ignored the letter.
The Aloha Poke Co. released a statement on Facebook Monday apologizing for the controversy and claiming their attorneys had not followed through with any legal action. They also denied that the company had ever threatened anyone with a gag order – something shop owners alleged Aloha Poke Co. had done.
O Ka Aina claims in a petition calling for Aloha Poke Co. to remove “aloha” and “poke” from their name that by trying to trademark “aloha” and “poke,” the brand is “capitalizing on an Indigenous traditional dish.”
The Aloha Poke Co.’s social media sites have been placed in clean-up mode after receiving a barrage of angry social media users attacking the restaurant.
“We live ‘aloha.’ They don’t even know what it means.”
“You don't own the word "aloha" and never will. How dare you? Disney tried to copyright "dia de los muertos" ask them how that went for them. Your insulting attempt to culturally appropriate of the word "aloha" is a PR nightmare you will wish you never started,” one wrote on Yelp.
“BOYCOTT THIS BUSINESS!!! This Haóle owned business is sending out cease and desist orders to businesses using the word Aloha!!!” another wrote.
Though Aloha Poke Co. made an apology on Monday, the company did not say if it would discontinue sending the cease and desist letters.
“To this point, the company holds two federal trademarks for its design logo and the words 'Aloha Poke' for use in connection with restaurants, catering and take out services. This means that the company has the exclusive right to use those words together in connection with restaurant services within the US. This trademark does not prevent another person or entity from using the word Aloha alone or the word Poke alone in any instance,” the company said in the statement.
“We respect and understand the concerns that have been raised around these false and misleading claims. We have been moved by the passionate defense of the Hawaiian culture displayed throughout social media and want nothing more than to assure everyone of the facts in these matters. We are truly sorry for all of the confusion that this has caused,” the statement concluded.