Aloha Poke Co., a Chicago-based restaurant chain, has been fighting to protect its trademarked, Hawaiian name for more than a year. It was not until this week, however, that the backlash to its efforts drew a public apology from the company.
Though its name is Hawaiian, the company is not. The restaurant, which sells poke, a Hawaiian dish with seasoned chunks of raw fish, usually over rice, was founded in Chicago in 2016 — the same year it trademarked its name. In the months since, Aloha Poke has sent cease-and-desist letters asking businesses with similar names to find new ones.
Reports of the letters sparked outrage and accusations of cultural appropriation. The flames were fanned this week by Facebook videos —
People in Hawaii were upset by the news, Kaniela Ing, a Hawaii state representative who urged people to boycott the company, said on Tuesday.
He said it was especially ironic to see “aloha” at the center of such a controversy because the word is representative of Hawaiian culture and can mean many things, including hello, goodbye and love.
“It’s hard to define,” Mr. Ing said. “But I can say what it’s not: It’s not suing other people for using it.”
The company said on Monday that all the business owners who received the letters complied, no businesses had closed down because of the requests and no legal actions were taken.
“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,’” it said in the statement. “Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so. Not ever.”
“We are truly sorry for all of the confusion that this has caused,” it added.
David Jacobsen, the owner of a poke restaurant in Bellingham, Wash., said he got one of the cease-and-desist letters last year. Back then, his restaurant was called Aloha Poke Fairhaven.
“We were in no position to fight it,” said Mr. Jacobsen, who was born in Hawaii. “We’re very, very small. We’re low budget.”
Instead of contesting the demands, the restaurant made the switch to its current name: Fairhaven Poke.
While Mr. Jacobsen was taking down his website and changing his signs, Aloha Poke was expanding. Begun two years ago as a small food stall in Chicago, the company now has restaurants in several major cities including Los Angeles, Denver and Washington.
The letters were an effort to stop trademark infringement, the company said in its statement. “This is a very common practice used across industries, and in particular, in the restaurant industry to protect the use of a business’s name and brand.”
Zach Friedlander, the company’s founder, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But he said in a Facebook post on Monday that he was “deeply saddened” by the reactions, adding that he left the company a few months ago.
Despite lamenting that many facts had been “left out of the conversation on social media,” Mr. Friedlander said that “more than anything I am truly sorry that anyone, especially native Hawaiians, have been offended by this situation.”
Mr. Ing said the apologies were not enough. “We shared ‘aloha’ — and poke, for that matter — with him, and now he refuses to share it with us,” he said of Mr. Friedlander.
Mr. Jacobsen said that changing the name of his restaurant last year was inconvenient, but not too damaging for his business: Customers are still coming in for the fish he gets flown in from Hawaii.
“It was the principle of it, more than anything, that we were upset with,” he said. “As a business we’ve actually moved on.”