Legal Battle Over “Aloha Poke” Name

July 31, 2018, 2:02 PM HST · Updated August 1, 12:11 PM
Wendy Osher · 41 Comments
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A business that sells poke on the mainland is attempting to enforce a trademark on the words “Aloha Poke” when used together in connection with restaurant services in the US.

The Chicago-based Aloha Poke Co. asserts that it is protecting the use of its business name and brand (according to the company’s social media post); but others have called the action “offensive,” labeling the move as “culture appropriation” and “gentrification.”

Legal Battle Over "Aloha Poke" Name

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A business that sells poke on the mainland is attempting to enforce a trademark on the words "Aloha Poke" when used together in connection with restaurant services in the US.

Posted by MauiNow.com on Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The story came to light recently in an article published on Monday in the Washington Post.  A slurry of social media attention related to the issue also populated many local Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts in recent days.

Part of that social media “backlash” has come in the form of a petition on change.org, urging Aloha Poke Co. to remove “Aloha” and “Poke” from its name. The petition, started just yesterday (Monday, July 30, 2018), had garnered the support of more than 25,000 people as of this morning (July 31, 2018).

One of the businesses that was at the receiving end of a cease and desist order was Lei’s Poke Stop (formerly Aloha Poke Stop) in Anchorage Alaska.

In a live Facebook video posted on Monday evening, Lei’s Poke Stop co-owner Tasha Kahele said she was “offended” by the cease and desist letter that was received on May 17, 2018.  “We learned growing up that ‘aloha’ is to be lived (right), to be given, to be shared, and not restricted.  So I couldn’t wrap my brain around how that was happening… and I was very hurt,” said Kahele in the video.

“Aloha does not belong to us.  We know better,” said Kahele.  “We fought so hard to revitalize our language and then we have people like this who could have existed sharing that name.”

“Being in business, I understand copyright infringement,” Kahele explained, saying it was not an easy decision to make, but she could not afford the legal ramifications, if any, of keeping the name and staying the course. “What I couldn’t understand, honestly, was how those two words–very descriptive words, call it what you want, very general words… whatever–those two words, were copy-written.”

The online petition goes further to explain that the words “poke” and “aloha” both come with “deep cultural meaning and symbolism.”

In an effort to “set the record straight,” an explanation was published on a Facebook page for Aloha Poke Co.’s Costa Mesa, California location on Monday morning.  The post says there is a “significant amount of misinformation” being shared on social media, that has caused anger and offense. “First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.”

The post, (which is available in its entirety below) states: “Perhaps the most important issue that needs to be set straight is the false assertion that Aloha Poke Co. has attempted to own either the word ‘Aloha’ or the word ‘Poke.’ Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so. Not ever.”

Aloha Poke Co. 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.”

Kahele described her frustrations and hopes in her live video saying, “We struggle already being so far away from Hawaiʻi, and feeling so disconnected from our ʻāina, from our people… To learn of this company who is already profiting–who has already been profiting for two years–who is this multi-million-dollar corporation–coming after us, coming after a kanaka maoli-owned business, my ʻohana.  I took it very personally at first.”

“We just hope as kanaka, in the future, our language would be so sacred that no one, especially poʻe haole cannot tell us that we cannot use our own language in our business, in our music, in our art.  Because as a native, that is our right,” said Kahele.  She said it is her hope that for generations to come, “especially kanaka maoli families–don’t need to suffer from people that are trying to profit and exploit our language and profit off of our language.”

Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu posted a simple graphic on their Facebook page on Sunday with the words “Save ALOHA.”  In response to a fan inquiry asking how the community can help, administrators explained that they, too, received a letter in January, “and just ignored it… cannot steal aloha.” 

Owners of Fairhaven Poke in Bellingham, Washington report that they “reluctantly” changed their name from Aloha Poke Fairhaven about a year ago due to increasing media attention at the time over Aloha Poke LLC out of Chicago.

Fairhaven Poke‘s David Jacobsen and Mark Ushijima wrote on their Facebook page, “We were just the first of several business owners who were compelled to change our names and rebrand our businesses.”  The restaurant reports that changes included demands for the removal of the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” from their business name, domain name, FB page and other social media sites.

“We have since moved on from that episode with the support of the local community and visitors alike.”  The two report that Aloha Poke LLC Chicago has recently been facing “increasing backlash” over their actions.

Below is a social media post that Aloha Poke Co. released on Monday morning:

Over the past 48 hours, a significant amount of misinformation about Aloha Poke Co. has been shared on social media. We know that this misinformation has caused a considerable amount of anger and offense among those who care very passionately about their Hawaiian culture. First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering. It is our sincere hope that this statement can set the record straight and address valid concerns raised by many individuals around issues that are very personal to them.

Perhaps the most important issue that needs to be set straight is the false assertion that Aloha Poke Co. has attempted to own either the word “Aloha” or the word “Poke”. Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so. Not ever. We will explain more about this below.

Second, there is zero truth to the assertion that we have attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke. This simply has not happened, nor will it happen. We truly celebrate Hawaiian culture and what makes it so wonderful, which is very much the reason why we branded our business as we did.

Third, it is entirely false that we have either sued businesses for using the word Aloha or the word Poke or sought a “gag order“ on anyone for using the words. We honestly do not know how either claim came to be, but this is simply not true. What we have done is attempted to stop trademark infringers in the restaurant industry from using the trademark “Aloha Poke” without permission. This is a very common practice used across industries, and in particular, in the restaurant industry to protect the use of a business’ name and brand.

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.

In the rare instance where we have needed to send notices to those using our trademark in the restaurant industry, we have done so in a cooperative manner, and all have complied with our request to rebrand without any resulting legal action. Not a single business has closed as a result of this.

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.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served nearly 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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