Aloha Poke Co. is not a Hawaiian company.
The Chicago-based chain started selling the native Hawaiian raw fish dish in 2016, and has since spread across the country. Locally, Aloha Poke Co. has a location in the Minneapolis skyway, with another on its way to Woodbury and up to 10 more planned for the state, according to the Business Journal.
But its non-native roots haven't stopped the company from sending cease-and-desists to restaurants using the words "aloha" and "poke" in their name or signage, many of which are owned and operated by native Hawaiians. In May, Alaska's Aloha Poke Stop got a cease and desist letter, according to the Guardian, and it sounds like shops across the country were hit with them.
Yes, that includes one poke place that's literally in Hawaii.
"He said 'if you're using the words 'aloha' and 'poke' and you're selling food, we own that right,'" Aloha Poke Stop owner Tasha Kahele told Hawaii News Now.
Aloha Poke Co. issued a sort-of apology Monday after the situation blew up online, with activists calling on people to boycott the chain and flooding Yelp and online comments sections with negative notes. In their statement, the company insists there is "zero truth" to the fact that they told Hawaiian businesses they couldn't use "aloha" or "poke" in their branding, and that "what we have done is attempted to stop trademark infringers in the restaurant industry from using the trademark 'Aloha Poke' without permission."
The company added that their letters haven't led any poke places to close.
That hasn't satisfied many activists, including native Hawaiian activist Kalamaoka’aina Niheu, whose Facebook post about the ordeal first went viral over the weekend. Her change.org petition calling on Aloha Poke Co. to remove both aloha and poke from its own name already has nearly 40,000 signatures and counting.
On that petition page, Niheu outlines exactly why this is so upsetting:
The root base of aloha are the words ALO and HA. Alo means presence, or as some kupuna have described it, recognition. HA means the breath of life. Therefore when we as Kanaka Maoli say “Aloha” we are recognizing being in the presence of another person's breath of life. To threaten suit to Kanaka Maoli families who are simply trying to practice their generations old culture and feed the community? So that you can profit off of a culture and a people that are not yours to sell? That is what we call HEWA.
Aloha Poke Stop owner Kahele said that the "apology" misses the point either way. No, they didn't close; yes, changing their name, getting a new sign, and rebranding entirely added up to tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for the business.
“We just weren’t prepared to do that,” Kahele told Eater Chicago. (The restaurant is now called Lei's Poke Stop, named for the owners' eldest daughter.) “We were already struggling as a small family business.”