No aloha? Chicago eatery goes after poke shops for trademark infringement

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In Hawaii, poke is pretty ubiquitous. So is aloha.

It's no surprise, then, that Aloha Poke is not an uncommon name when it comes to poke stops.

But that may soon change.

Chicago-based Aloha Poke Co. trademarked the name and is telling other restaurants with "Aloha Poke" in their name to give it up.

Cease-and-desist letter have been going out, including to eateries in the islands.

But the issue triggered a social media firestorm over the weekend, when a Native Hawaiian activist questioned how the word "aloha" can be trademarked and how Native Hawaiians can be told not to use their own language.

Aloha Poke Shop on Bishop Street got a cease-and-desist letter in January.

It read, "Your use of 'Aloha' and 'Aloha Poke' is confusingly the same as Aloha Poke's ALOHA POKE registered trademark."

"At first, I thought it was a joke because I didn't think you could trademark 'aloha' or 'poke' or them together in any shape or form," said Jeff Sampson, who co-owns Aloha Poke Shop.

He says he ignored the letter after contacting some Hawaii attorneys and decided a name change or a court battle against the Chicago-based eatery would be expensive for the restaurant to handle.

The company that's chasing down other poke shops, meanwhile, says it's sorry for triggering emotional responses and contends there's been misinformation about what it's asking businesses to do.

"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.' Neither is true and we would never attempt to do so," said CEO Chris Birkinshaw, in the statement.

He said the company holds two federal trademarks for its design logo and the words "Aloha Poke" for use in connection the restaurant business. The company has the "exclusive right to use those words together in connection with restaurant services within the US," he said.

Hawaii News Now asked Aloha Poke Co., which has four restaurants in the Chicago area, if it would file a lawsuit if another restaurant refuses to change its name. A spokeswoman emailed, "The company has never been faced with that scenario and doesn't expect it ever will."

Hawaiian cultural leader Hinaleimona Wong said from a Western sense, the company is acting legally.

But, Wong added, it's morally and ethically wrong to trademark anything with "aloha."

"That is not the way of values our people. It is not acceptable that they (Aloha Poke Co.) seek to have exclusivity for their benefit," she said.

As for poke fans, they're not on board, either.

"I think that it's ridiculous because the word 'aloha' means to share," said resident Richard Ricafrente.

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