This Evanston location is one of several in the Chicago area for the Aloha Poke Co. chain, which has threatened legal action against other restaurants serving the sushi bowl dishes that use the word “Aloha” in their name. | Google Streetview

Chicago poke chain draws Hawaiian backlash for trying to restrict use of ‘aloha’

Attorneys from Aloha Poke Co. have sent multiple cease-and-desist letters to poke bowl joints across the country that have the word “aloha” in their name. But the attempt to protect their trademarked name seems to be backfiring.

The Hawaiian word “aloha” has meanings rooted in the ideals of peace, love and compassion.

But the traditional Hawaiian greeting has become part of a less-than-friendly legal battle involving a Chicago-based chain selling “poke,” a rice and raw fish dish.

Attorneys from Aloha Poke Co. have sent multiple cease-and-desist letters to poke bowl joints across the country that have the word “aloha” in their name. But the attempt to protect their trademarked name seems to be backfiring.

A Washington state restaurant posted on Facebook after getting a letter. It changed its name from Aloha Poke Fairhaven to just Fairhaven Poke.

Fairhaven Poke owner David Jacobsen said Aloha Poke Co. founder Zach Friedlander was “trying to exploit and capitalize on the recent popularity” of the traditional Hawaiian dish.

“We chose to use the word “Aloha” in our business name because of the special meaning that it holds for the people of Hawaii,” the statement 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!”

A company representative said the firm objected to combining “aloha” and “poke” in a business name — even if separated by other words — but did not intend to restrict the use of the word “aloha” by itself — though that is what the letters appear to say, and that is how business owners interviewed by the Sun-Times interpreted the letters.

Though he no longer is with the company, Friedlander was targeted on social media after news of the letter spread. That prompted him to post a statement on Facebook:

“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,” he wrote.

“I am truly sorry that anyone, especially native Hawaiians, have been offended by this situation. I want them to know that I have nothing but love and respect for them.”

Friedlander sent the Sun-Times Facebook messages he received from angry individuals with phrases like “He is a Jew trying to steal language and tradition from another culture,” or “I hope you meet a slow miserable death for all the hurt and pain you caused” and “Hey ——, you don’t own the word Aloha.”

“It’s so sad,” Friedlander said. “These people really have no actual idea what they’re fighting about.”

A representative from Aloha Poke shared a statement from current CEO Chris Birkinshaw reiterating that the company had not tried to restrict use of the world “aloha” and was just protecting the trademarked name “Aloha Poke.”

Jeff Sampson, owner of Aloha Poke Shop in downtown Honolulu, was surprised to hear this, as he received his cease-and-desist letter in January that specifically asked the shop not to use the word “Aloha.”

“You can understand how your use of the word ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ is confusingly the same as Aloha Poke’s … trademark,” the letter said. “We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’”

Sampson ignored the letter; he didn’t foresee any competition between his Honolulu-based restaurant with a Chicago chain. He said even trying to assert a trademark of “Aloha Poke” was ridiculous.

“Everything’s called ‘Aloha’ in Hawaii. There’s Aloha store, Aloha mortgage company,” he said. “(And) poke is like pizza. … There’s a million poke shops out here.”

Jacobsen of Fairhaven Poke said his cease-and-desist letter contained language similar to Sampson’s letter. He changed his business name a year ago, and figured what Aloha Poke did would catch up with them eventually.

“It’s not a good business practice to do what he did,” Jacobsen said. “I knew at some point it would come back to bite him. There’s a word used in Hawaii, “bachi,” that means, ‘what goes around comes around.’”

The Aloha Poke representative said the company did not send cease-and-desist letters to owners of native Hawaiian background. However, Tasha Kahele, owner of the former Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska, said she made clear she was of native Hawaiian descent when responding to the letter she received in May; she even used Hawaiian language.

Kahele also said she was specifically asked to stop using the word “aloha,” and that the appropriation of her family’s language hurt more than the financial cost to rebrand their small business as “Lei’s Poke Stop.”

“The aloha spirit is very unique to our culture,” she said. “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.”

Kaniela Ing, a state legislator in Hawaii who is running for Congress, posted a response on Twitter.

“It’s bad enough that that word has been used, commodified over time, but this is the next level,” Ing says in the video.

“To think that you have legal ownership over one of the most profound Hawaiian values is just something else.”

Hawaii already has various shops calling themselves “Aloha Poke,” Ing said.

“They should be suing you! They should be suing you, but they probably won’t, because that’s not aloha,” said Ing.

“All we ask is, if you’re making so much money off our words, our values, our food, our culture, you can at least hear us when we tell you to stop,” he says. “We fight for aloha.”

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