HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When the owner of the former Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage talked to a representative from the Chicago-based Aloha Poke Company, the conversation left her stunned.
"He said 'if you're using the words 'aloha' and 'poke' and you're selling food, we own that right.' That was his exact words to me," said Tasha Kahele. "So I looked up my daughter and I was like, this guy must be crazy."
Kahele says she changed her restaurant name to Lei's Poke Stop in order to avoid a lawsuit, but the tens of thousand of dollars in changes have hit her company hard financially.
Kahele's shop was one of many nationwide, including several in the islands, that have been told to change their names to avoid a trademark infringement claim. The action triggered a firestorm over the weekend, when a Native Hawaiian activist took to social media to question a trademark of Hawaiian words.
In a statement from its public relations company, Aloha Poke Company's CEO Chris Birkinshaw said that he stood by the company's two federal trademarks — though he claims he's not trying to own the words "aloha" or "poke."
"We have never attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke," read the statement.
But the cease-and-desist letter being sent to shops by the company's Chicago law firm, Olson and Cepuritis, Ltd. tells a different story. It reads: "This demand includes removal of 'aloha' and 'aloha poke' from any company name..."
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Chicago city councilman, is standing up for Native Hawaiian businesses, saying minorities like Mexicans and Puerto Ricans from his own heritage share similar struggles.
"This really struck a nerve with me. Not only do you want to steal someone's culture and make money off of it, then you want to deny native people of their own ability to have their own livelihood," he said.
Despite the legal trademarks, he believes the company's actions conflict with the diverse cultures of Chicago and Hawaii.
"I hope they stop sending cease and desist letters and recognize that they messed up and did wrong," he said.