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A Midwestern chain told Hawaiians to stop using ‘Aloha’ with ‘Poke,’ igniting a heated debate

The poke trend: the fruit of a cross-cultural exchange or the end product of years of appropriation? (Renee Comet for The Washington Post)

The letter came to Jeffery Sampson’s home outside Honolulu in January, with a return address for a law office on the 36th floor of a building in Chicago.

The lawyers with the firm represented a company from the city, the Aloha Poke Co., that had jumped on one of the latest food trends — selling the Hawaiian staple poke, made from raw marinated ahi tuna — in 2016 and quickly expanded their reach to more than a dozen locations in Chicago and other cities such as Milwaukee, Denver and Washington.

Sampson also operated a poke shop, a luncheonette of 20 seats that he had opened with three friends in downtown Honolulu that shared little in common with the Chicago chain besides the dish and, coincidentally or not, given the commonality of the Hawaiian word, the name. When Sampson and friends opened the luncheonette about a year and a half ago, they had named it the Aloha Poke Shop, using the traditional Hawaiian greeting and word of welcoming.

Now the lawyers, with the firm Olson and Cepuritis Ltd., were demanding that he change the business’s name, website, logo and materials to cease using the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” immediately.

“Aloha Poke [Co.] would prefer to settle this matter amicably and without court intervention,” the letter read. “We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’ ”

The rapid proliferation of poke, from the shelves of small shops in Hawaii to the counters of chains serving workers on their breaks in the centers of corporate power, has been well documented the past couple years. It has earned its fair share of detractors, who have argued that it was the latest in a long list of ways that Hawaiian culture was being conveniently repackaged for mass consumption, another entry point in the debate over cultural ownership and appropriation in the United States.

Hawaiian poke has never been trendier. But the mainland is ruining it.

But the news that the Midwestern chain, which doesn’t count any native Hawaiians among its founders, was sending cease-and-desist letters to threaten small poke restaurants not only in Hawaii but around the country has set off an even deeper round of anger, touching on long-standing wounds left from Hawaii’s long history of colonialism and commodification at the hands of outsiders.

“Aloha Poke Company wants our food, our language, and our culture, but they want to discard the people,” Kalamaoka’aina Niheu, the Hawaiian activist whose video on the letters went viral, told The Washington Post. In her video, she spoke about how important the idea of aloha was for Hawaiian culture but noted that it “has been just completely commercialized and denigrated.”

The disclosures about the cease-and-desist letters have resulted in calls to boycott the Chicago chain, including a petition to urge the company to drop the words from its name. A congressional candidate from Hawaii has issued a sharp rebuke on social media. And hundreds of angry commenters have flocked to the chain’s social media pages to express their displeasure, accusing the company of cultural appropriation, of bullying small businesses, of disrespecting Hawaiian culture and well, not even making real poke in the first place.

“This is what colonizers do,” one commenter wrote. “They delete our stories and make it their own!”

Yelp pages for the Chicago company’s outposts have been inundated with critical and negative reviews. Many commenters pointed out that the idea the company would potentially pursue legal action against another business over the word “aloha” goes against the spirit of the word.

“Unfortunately, cultural appropriation and trying to sue a Hawaiian family for using the word ‘aloha’ is just gross,” one wrote on Yelp. “We offer you the olive branch to learn what is sacred and deeply meaningful to an entire community of people. The alternative is careless colonization of culture.”

In a phone interview, Sampson, 51, said that he and his business partners had decided to take a stand and ignore the Chicago company’s demands.

“Let them come after us,” Sampson said. “They can bring it to Hawaii. And if a judge tells me to take it down, we’ll take it down. Until that happens, that sign stays where it is.”

He said he had always been aware of other restaurants with “Aloha” and “poke” in their names in Hawaii, including one near his Honolulu shop, but would never have considered taking out a trademark or pursuing legal action. So he said he was confused by the actions of Aloha Poke Co.

“Obviously they don’t know what that means,” he said. “Nobody fights over the words of aloha here. For them to take it … those are Hawaiian words.”

Other businesses have taken less bold steps after hearing from the lawyers in Chicago.

Tasha Kahele, a native Hawaiian who was the owner of the Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, said she felt she had no choice but to change the name, to Lei’s Poke Stop, after receiving a threatening letter in May from the company.

“Culturally I was very offended to be told as a native Hawaiian that I couldn’t use my native language in my business,” she told The Post. “It was very hurtful. And then to find out that the company wasn’t native Hawaiian.”

Her restaurant, which operates out of a strip mall, has spent thousands of dollars redoing its signage, logos, marketing, advertising and T-shirts, Kahele said.

“This business is not owned by investors or a corporation. My family owns this business,” she said. “This has caused a lot of financial hardship on my family. We told them we’d comply out of fear of legal ramifications, but we are going to suffer because of this.”

Last year, a poke shop in Bellingham, Wash., changed its name from Aloha Poke Fairhaven after receiving the cease-and-desist letter.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we will no longer be doing business as Aloha Poke Stop. We have decided to…

Posted by Lei’s Poke Stop on Friday, July 27, 2018

Caroline Wellford, a spokeswoman for the Aloha Poke Co., declined to say how many restaurants had received cease-and-desist letters.

In a statement posted on social media, the company said that it had two federal trademarks for its logo and the words “Aloha Poke,” for any use connected to restaurants, catering and takeout. It took aim at what it said was misinformation being spread about its intent, and said it was only trying to stop “trademark infringers” in the restaurant industry who used the words “aloha” and “poke” in conjunction with one another.

“First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering,” the company said. “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.”

The company’s founder, Zach Friedlander, who left it this year around the time former Potbelly executive Chris Birkinshaw was brought on as CEO, according to Eater, defended the company’s actions on Facebook as “efforts taken to protect, as any business would, its brand” and labeled some of the criticism as “false news” and a “witch hunt.”

“I am deeply saddened by the reaction that some have taken regarding this situation,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, many facts about the company’s name have been left out of the conversation on social media, but more than anything 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 had originally filed for the trademark in January 2016, Eater reported.

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