HONOLULU ― Last week, Tasha Kahele, a Native Hawaiian who now lives in Alaska, was forced to change the name of her small business because it used two Hawaiian words trademarked by a fast-food chain founded by a white man in Chicago.
Aloha Poke Co., which operates more than a dozen restaurants across the country, sent a letter to Kahele in May, threatening legal action if she didn’t remove the words “aloha” and “aloha poke” from her Anchorage shop, where she and her daughter sell traditional Hawaiian foods including poke, a dish featuring chunks of seasoned raw fish.
Aloha Poke Co.’s letter said the name of Kahele’s store, Aloha Poke Stop, and any items that included those two Hawaiian words were a “direct infringement” on the chain’s trademark, and demanded that she destroy all related items immediately.
Kahele, who is from Oahu, was furious. She feels a deep connection to both aloha, a cultural concept for Native Hawaiians, and poke, a staple in the islands usually served over rice.
She couldn’t afford to rebrand her business. But the even bigger cost of challenging a restaurant chain and its lawyers would be ruinous, so she decided to rename her store Lei’s Poke Stop.
“We were still struggling to get our business off the ground,” Kahele told HuffPost. “We financially weren’t prepared to have to do that.”
The name change was costly ― Kahele said it cost “thousands of dollars” for a single storefront sign ― and it was insulting.
“You’re telling a Native Hawaiian family that I cannot use my language in my business,” Kahele told HuffPost. “I should have first rights to my language.”
At least two other small businesses have received cease-and-desist letters from Aloha Poke Co. lawyers. The letters surfaced on the internet this week, and people on social media reacted with outrage.
Public anger exploded when the news reached Hawaii.
Native Hawaiians, locals and allies across the country flooded Aloha Poke Co.’s Yelp pages with negative reviews and shamed the company on social media. A petition circulated by activists collected more than 125,000 signatures, calling for the chain to change its name. Hawaiian organizations began exploring legal options to fight back.
For Hawaiians, the Aloha Poke Co.’s legal threats are bigger than a trademark claim. They are attacks on Hawaiian culture.
“If there was any aloha (or aloha spirit) in the choice of the word as their business name, this would not even be an issue,” Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui, a Hawaiian literature professor, told HuffPost in an email.
“It has turned into a much bigger issue because of their heavy-handed, thuggish tactics meant to flex the strong, aggressive arm of oppressive white-settler entitlement and false superiority against not just a small Hawaii-based company, who is not even a direct competitor, but against an entire culture.”
Aloha Poke in Bellingham, Washington, also received a cease-and-desist letter from Aloha Poke Co. in 2017, and was forced to rebrand to Fairhaven Poke. Aloha Poke Stop in Honolulu received a letter in January, but owner Jeff Sampson refuses to drop the name of his shop.
In Hawaii, aloha is more than a greeting (the word famously means both hello and goodbye). It’s a cultural concept that describes the spirit of love, compassion, community and kindness. For many, it’s a way of life.
And, much like the dish poke ― which in Hawaiian translates to a style of dicing fish or food ― it’s literally everywhere in the Aloha State. The word aloha appears in the names of gas stations, soy sauce bottles, restaurants, stadiums, political movements, accounting firms and in everyday conversation.
Sampson, the owner of Honolulu’s Aloha Poke Stop, said he thinks businesses in Hawaii would never try to prevent competitors from using the word aloha in their name.
“Everybody is shocked,” Sampson said of the fast-food chain’s tactics. He said has decided to ignore the cease-and-desist letter, and has reached out to Kahele to offer his support.
“If there was any aloha (or aloha spirit) in the choice of the word as their business name, this would not even be an issue.”
The controversy is especially insulting to Hawaiians because of the painful history behind Native Hawaiian language.
Three years after American businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, Hawaiians were banned from speaking their native language in schools. That ban existed until 1986.
“The company is literally outlawing, again, our people from utilizing our own language,” Dr. Kalamaokaʻaina Niheu, a Native Hawaiian activist and physician, said in a Facebook Live video.
“These are kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) businesses,” she added. “These are kanaka maoli families who are struggling to survive, struggling to make it.”
Aloha Poke Co. responded to the furor on Monday with a statement defending the cease-and-desist letters, but apologizing for their “triggering” nature.
“Misinformation has caused a considerable amount of anger and offense among those who care very passionately about Hawaiian culture,” the company said. “We want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.”
The company denied asking Native Hawaiian businesses to stop using the words “aloha” or “poke,” claiming “this simply has not happened nor will it happen.”
However, two of the company’s letters reviewed by HuffPost explicitly order recipients, including Kahele, to stop using both the single word “aloha” and the phrase “aloha poke.”
Neither the Aloha Poke Co. CEO, Chris Birkinshaw, nor a spokesman responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment. Zach Friedlander, who founded the company and left his post as CEO in May, declined to answer HuffPost questions.
The chain’s statement satisfied few.
Hawaii’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs denounced Aloha Poke Co. and said it was considering “possible solutions.” Current trademark laws “present substantial challenges for protecting our culture and promoting its pono (appropriate) use,” the office said.
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, an advocacy group, said it was exploring legal action.
“Fear-mongering and intimidation tactics have no place in our culture,” the council’s chairman, Hanalei Aipoalani, said in a statement deploring the company’s business practices.
But even if Aloha Poke Co. backs away from its trademark claims, Kahele said she would keep her shop’s new name.
Her native language is important to her, she said, but her shop simply could not bear the extra costs.