Aloha Poke Co., a recently opened restaurant near Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, has students questioning their dining choices after the chain trademarked “Aloha Poke.”
The Chicago-based chain sent cease and desist letters to Hawaiian-owned restaurants with the same or similar name, sparking a conversation about cultural appropriation among activists, restaurant owners and other community members.
Cease and desist letters are written when a business has a copyright or trademark on which they believe another business is infringing.
Aloha Poke Co., 6462 N. Sheridan Rd., is one of 14 of the chain’s locations in the U.S.
On July 28, author and activist Dr. Kalamaokaaina Niheu made her followers aware of the letters through a Facebook live video.
Niheu said she believes the cease and desist letters are an example of cultural appropriation against Hawaiians.
“This was a blatant violation of everything we had been fighting for, it was a direct attack on our community as a whole,” Niheu said.
Niheu’s video currently has over 80,000 views and 1,500 shares. Her online petition insisting Aloha Poke Co. remove “Aloha” and “Poke” from their name amassed over 171,600 signatures from people across the country as of Sept. 4.
“We knew it would resonate in Hawaii, but we were surprised it resonated so broadly,” Niheu said.
On July 30, Aloha Poke Co. addressed the situation via a Facebook post.
“A significant amount of misinformation about Aloha Poke Co. has been shared on social media,” the post said. “First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.”
Niehu said she believes their apology wasn’t sincere.
“That is certainly not what we consider an apology,” Niheu said.
Aloha Poke Co. also dismissed claims that the cease and desist letters had told Hawaiian-owned businesses they could not use the terms “Aloha” or “Poke.”
“There is zero truth to the assertion that we have attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke,” the post said.
Niheu gave The Phoenix a copy of one of the letters, from attorneys of the law offices of Olson and Cepuritis, LTD. in Chicago, addressed to Shaunacie Gooman-Kahele and Natasha Kahele, owners of Lei’s Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Due to the similarity of the marks, the similarity of goods and services and the actual confusion in the marketplace, your use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ must cease immediately,” the letter stated. “While we do not seek to interfere with your business or practice of selling poke cuisine, Aloha Poke cannot let these uses continue without harming its valuable trademark rights in and goodwill associated with its Registered Trademarks.”
Niehu said the letters relate to cultural appropriation, a common topic in pop culture and media in recent years. In April, a white teenager in Utah was accused of cultural appropriation after sharing photos of her Chinese inspired prom dress. Two months later, Kim Kardashian had similar claims against her for her hairstyle.
“Cultural appropriation isn’t just a soft complaint about racism. It is the new frontier in the mining of intellectual property rights and traditional knowledge,” Niheu said. “This case really exemplifies a direct connection between appropriation and oppression.”
Caiti Lyons, first-year English major, was born in Hawaii. Lyons said she believes there are other restaurants more deserving of Loyola student’s patronage.
“I am boycotting Aloha Poke Co. I would encourage other students to boycott it, just because of what it stands for,” Lyons said. “It’s not that hard to find a different poke restaurant in Chicago.”
Other students said they have been attracted to the poke restaurant for its modern environment and 10 percent student discount.
Ruby Jackson, a first-year studying marketing, frequents Aloha Poke Co.
“I really like sushi and poke, it’s one of my favorite foods. When I saw it was across campus, I was really excited … It’s a really nice environment, I have been there like three times already,” Jackson said.
David Jacobsen was born in Hawaii and is a co-owner of Fairhaven Poke in Washington. He and his business partner, Mark Ushijima, received one of the cease and desist letters from Aloha Poke Co.
In July 2017, Jacobsen posted on Facebook that, after about a year of operation, he and his business partner, Mark Ushijima, would be changing their name from Aloha Poke Fairhaven to Fairhaven Poke.
“It just comes down to big business versus small business … we were in no position to fight it, we might have had a moral ground to stand on, but when it comes down to it we just couldn’t justify it,” Jacobsen said.
Aloha Poke Co. public relations representatives were unavailable for comment at the time of publication. Management at the Aloha Poke Co. location near Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus declined to comment.