The Aloha Poke Controversy: Naming Businesses Across Cultures

Naming a business is hard. Sometimes, it makes sense to look to other languages and cultures for inspiration. But beware: a poorly chosen trademark from another language can turn into a PR disaster later. A Chicago restaurant chain called Aloha Poke found that out the hard way earlier this month.

Here’s the controversy, in a nutshell:

The restaurant specialises in an Americanised version of a Hawaiian staple called “poke,” seasoned raw fish and rice bowls. The restaurant’s founder, Zach Friedlander, is not native Hawaiian in any sense of the word. He first discovered poke in Los Angeles. Aloha Poke has done well in Chicago and plans to expand nationwide.

So, its lawyers began sending out cease-and-desist letters to other restaurants that used the words “Aloha” and “poke” in their names. The targets included small family restaurants owned by native Hawaiians, some of which had been in business for years. Social media outrage ensued. So far, there have been protests, a threatened boycott, thousands of one-star Yelp reviews and a threatened lawsuit.

If you’re considering giving your business or product a name in a foreign language, here are four questions to ask yourself first.

Has the culture you’re taking inspiration from been historically marginalised or oppressed?

If you’re a cultural outsider, you need to be aware of the history of the culture that inspires your business. A little bit of research would have shown that native Hawaiians have historical reasons to be sensitive to and angry about exploitation from the mainland.

Is the language you’re using threatened? Is there a history of people being punished for speaking it?

“Aloha” is a Hawaiian word.  The Hawaiian language is classified as severely endangered.  The English-speaking, mostly American provisional government banned it from schools shortly after overthrowing the native Hawaiian monarchy in 1896.

After that, Hawaiian children were routinely punished, often physically, for using their language at school. They couldn’t even play games on the playground in their own language!

So, when lawyers from the mainland start sending threatening letters to native businesses for using two common Hawaiian words, it brings back some unpleasant cultural memories.

Are local, native-owned businesses already using similar names, even if they aren’t trademarked?

According to Hawaii state representative Kaniela Ing, there are several restaurants in Hawaii using some variation of “Aloha Poke” in their names.  In a video posted to social media and addressed to Aloha Poke, she said, “They should be suing you. But they probably won’t, because that’s not ‘aloha’.”

Yes, being the first to file a trademark will protect you in a court of law.  However, it won’t protect you in the court of public opinion. And consider, too, that they might know something you don’t.

For example,  Jeff Samson, the co-owner of Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, told the Guardian,

“We could have gone and tried to trademark the name. But I was like: ‘How could you trademark aloha? How could you trademark poke?’”

How important is the word you want to use in its culture of origin? And what does it mean?

To native Hawaiians, the word “Aloha” is much more than a simple greeting or catchphrase. It’s one of the fundamental concepts that define native Hawaiian culture. It’s sacred.  As  Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu explained to NBC News,

“Aloha is an incredibly foundational philosophy and concept. While it’s been commercialized and downgraded and ridiculed for a long time, in our tradition, aloha means ‘to stand in the presence of the breath of life.’”

Defending your trademark is an integral part of defending your brand. But if defending your trademark makes you look like a bully, that can damage your brand, too. So, it’s best to choose a company name that you can defend without appearing to disrespect an entire culture.

There’s just no way that a company with no Hawaiian connections, like Aloha Poke,  can vigorously defend their exclusive right to use a word like “Aloha” against businesses owned by Hawaiians selling a staple Hawaiian food without it coming across as bullying and cultural appropriation.

As Tasha Kahele, owner of the business formerly known as “Aloha Poke Stop”, told NBC:

“The word means a lot. It’s really important to us. It’s a part of who we are and how we do business. Financially, business-wise, we’re taking a hit,” she added. “And then as a Native Hawaiian, this is a direct insult to be told that we aren’t able to use our language in our business.”

Is it possible to avoid controversy in today’s atmosphere?

There’s a lot of disagreement about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation, especially when to comes to the food and restaurant industry. But in this case, the controversy was both predictable and avoidable.  Aloha Poke has issued a Facebook apology, but it was not well-received. (Pro tip: “We’re deeply sorry that this issue has been so triggering” is not a good way to apologise.) They should probably change their name to “Chicago Poke” and be done with it.

Linguistic and cultural knowledge is an important part of marketing today.

Not only does it help you avoid missteps, but it also helps you reach more people in a way that feels authentic and welcoming to them.  If you need help translating your brand into another language, our team can help. Take a look at the services we offer, and feel free to contact us.

2 replies
  1. Leonard Oshiro
    Leonard Oshiro says:

    The issues are not Aloha Poke Co in Chicago’s use of Aloha Poke in their company name, using Native Hawaiian language, selling poke (pronounced poh-keh), not being Native Hawaiian, or not even being from Hawaii. Others from all over the world (from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Austria, England, Washington, California, Nevada, New York, etc.) use “Aloha Poke” in their company name, sell poke (their version of it), most are not Native Hawaiian, and most of them are not from Hawaii. Native Hawaiians and others have shared the Hawaiian culture all over the world.

    The issues are that they (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) trademarked 2 commonly used Hawaiian words that were already in use before they (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) even existed, then to send cease and desist letters to other companies (in Alaska, Washington, Texas, Hawaii, and other places) some of which had the name Aloha Poke in their business name before this company did. And to top that, to demand that these companies stop using “ALOHA” in any of their materials (business name, logo, signage, business cards, photographs, social media accounts, emails, bochures, menus, etc.). So, for example, these companies wouldn’t be able to say/post/advertise, “Poke served with Aloha”, “Serving Poke with Aloha”. “Service with Aloha”, “Aloha Served Here”, or “Aloha ………..” in any part of their business material without the possibly of being sued by this Aloha Poke Co in Chicago. Their cease and desist letters basically states that they can take legal action against ANY poke (a Hawaiian raw fish dish) or seafood company (even if they didn’t have Aloha Poke in their business name), for using “ALOHA” in any of their business materials. Also, by sending their cease and desist letters and telling these other poke companies that by using “ALOHA” you are infringing on our trademark, they are saying that they have trademarked “ALOHA” even if they haven’t legally done so. When Tasha Kahele, the owner of Lei’s Poke Stop (formerly Aloha Poke Stop) in Anchorage Alaska called the law firm that sent out the cease and desist letters, telling them that she was Native Hawaiian and that “ALOHA” has a deep cultural meaning to Hawaiians, asking them if they knew the meaning of “ALOHA”, she was told by them that IT WAS IRRELEVANT and that THEY OWNED IT, “ALOHA” and that they are going to go after anyone that uses it, “ALOHA”. That sounds like they are telling these other poke companies that they did indeed trademark “ALOHA” and that they owned it. Of course, they didn’t have the right to do that because the trademark didn’t give them that right, but they are bullying / itimidating these much smaller businesses to change their name (remove “Aloha Poke”) and stop using “ALOHA” in any of their business materials (signage, menu, bochures, etc.) They are telling Native Hawaiians that own poke companies that they cannot use their own language in their business. It’s like Hola Taco Co telling Mexican owned restaurants that sells tacos, they can’t use the word “HOLA” in any of their business materials (menu, bochures, signage, logos, etc.) It’s also like Welcome Burgers Company sending cease and desist letters to other burger restaurants demanding that they cease using “Welcome” in any of their business name, logos, signage, social media sites, etc., and threatening legal action against those companies for doing so. That is what their cease and desist letters are saying. Many of these smaller (family owned, Native Hawaiian owned) businesses do not have the finances to lawyer up and fight this in the courts, which they have threatened to do. Some have already rebranded (such as the one in Alaska) at great financial difficulty to themselves. This is a David vs Goliath situation. They should have never been given approval to trademark 2 commonly used Hawaiian words, “Aloha” and “Poke” by themselves or together. They neither created the brand (poke) nor the name, “Aloha Poke”. As mentioned, there were several companies already using the name “Aloha Poke” in their business name, bochure, social media accounts (facebook, instragram, twitter, etc.) before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago even existed. They probably knew this because when you search the internet you will find these other Aloha Poke companies that existed before them. They decided to SELFISHLY take advantage of this and trademark “Aloha Poke”, 2 commonly used Hawaiian words. Then to try and prevent other poke companies including Native Hawaiian owned from using their own language, “ALOHA” in their business, that is not PONO (right). Aloha Poke Co in Chicago has no real understanding nor appreciation of ALOHA, of the cultural (Hawaiian), the food (poke) and language (Aloha Poke – Olelo Hawaii) from which they had taken from. That is the issue with the Native Hawaiian community, Hawaii’s people, and those that appreciate the Hawaiian culture and food (poke). ALOHA is to be SHARED with ALL and not (so called) owned by 1 company (Aloha Poke Co in Chicago). Doing a Facebook search, you will find that there are over 40+ DIFFERENT poke restaurants (nationally, internationally, and in Hawaii) that have the name “Aloha Poke” or have “Aloha Poke as part of their name. I counted at least 4 or 5 “Aloha Poke” companies having the name before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago. Also, there are lots of poke / seafood restaurants that use “Aloha” in their business materials (signage, logo, menu, brochure, etc). Will Aloha Poke Co in Chicago eventually go after those other companies. The answer is probably most definitely YES. That is why we are fighting to take back “Aloha Poke” from Aloha Poke Co in Chicago by having them cancel the trademark or take legal action to have the trademark removed, through spreading the mo’olelo (story) of what this company is trying to do. Aloha Poke Co in Chicago has NO ALOHA. ALOHA is NOT for sale. ALOHA is for ALL.

    In his (so called) apology statement, Mr Friedlander said that they were not preventing anyone from using “ALOHA” (by itself) in their poke business, but that is exactly what they were trying to do. He also stated that all those companies that received the cease and desist letters complied, which wasn’t true as well.

    As I mentioned to someone else, no one is being sued (as of yet) by Aloha Poke Co in Chicago as far as we can tell, but the threat of being sued have caused (so far) 2 poke (pronounced – poh-keh) restaurants (1 in Alaska and 1 in Washington) to rebrand. 1 of the rebranding cost over $10,000. For small businesses (family owned, Native Hawaiian owned) that’s alot of money that have caused some financial difficulties. These poke restaurants felt that they had no other choice but to take the least expensive route to rebrand (change their name, signage, business cards, website, facebook account, logo, etc.) then to fight this in the courts where it could cost them into the multiple of 10s of thousands of dollars (maybe $50,000, maybe $75,000, or maybe $100,000+ , ??????). The petitions (close to 175,000 people (so far) have signed the petition), the protest and marches are to bring awareness to the greater community, the good people of Chicago and the world at large of what Aloha Poke Co in Chicago is doing, to give them an opportunity to make a real apology, to cancel their trademark on Aloha Poke and take back (if you will) “Aloha Poke” from Aloha Poke Co in Chicago because they have NO ALOHA. As I mentioned earlier, there were already 4 or 5 poke restaurants already using “Aloha Poke” in their business name before Aloha Poke Co in Chicago even existed. Now there are over 40+ different poke restaurants worldwide that uses “Aloha Poke” in their business name. So, they never created the name “Aloha Poke” They just took what was not theirs, trademarked it, and tried to make it their own. As mentioned, the Native Hawaiians had no problem with them (before this) using the name “Aloha Poke”, using their Native Hawaiian language, selling poke, not being Native Hawaiian, or not being from Hawaii. The issue arose with their cease and desist letters that were sent out demanding that these other poke companies remove “Aloha Poke” from their business names. The bigger issue is that they were demanding that these poke companies (including Native Hawaiian owned) remove “ALOHA” from all their business materials. To a Native Hawaiian that is HEWA (wrong/offensive). To Native Hawaiians, ALOHA is not just a word, it’s a way of live, it’s their Cultural, It’s in their Hula (Hawaiian Dance), it’s in their music, it’s basically their breath of life. To have someone (a company like Aloha Poke Co in Chicago) tell Native Hawaiians to remove “ALOHA” (their breath of life) from their business is not PONO (right). If the Aloha Poke Co in Chicago does not comply amicably, then the next step will be legal action with the help of Native Hawaiian organizations (in Hawaii and Nationally), other poke businesses, and other organizations and peoples willing to assist. Mahalo Nui Loa (Thank you very much) to those that have been listening and becoming aware of what have been going on with this issue.

    A company cannot survive on bad publicity for long without it affecting their bottom line. We will never reach everyone or bring everyone over to our side. That will never be, but by bringing awareness to what Aloha Poke Co in Chicago is doing, I’m sure we have reached a lot of people who would have gone to Aloha Poke Co in Chicago and their other locations before this, but have now decided not to go. Our intention is to spread the mo’olelo (story) and hope others will truly understand what is going on and stand with Native Hawaiians, Hawaii’s people, and those that appreciate the Hawaiian Culture and Poke (Native Hawaiian raw fish dish). ALOHA is NOT for sale, ALOHA is for ALL. Mahalo Nui Loa (Thank you very much) for the good people of Chicago and outlying communities, others throughout the mainland United States, and people of the world for standing with Native Hawaiians and letting Aloha Poke Co in Chicago know that they cannot do what they say they haven’t but have through their cease and desist letters. ALOHA


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