Over the past few years, one of the most popular food trends to sweep across the country is poke, the Hawaiian dish of cubed pieces of raw fish, loosely marinated and seasoned. Pronounced “POH-keh” (and spelled without an accent on the letter “e”), poke is a Hawaiian term meaning to slice or cut crosswise into pieces. It may be new to mainland America, but in Hawaii, it’s a treat that dates back centuries, possibly as early as the first Polynesian settlers that sailed across the Pacific Ocean. These early Hawaiians were fishermen who would take the cut-offs from their catch of the day, slice up the fish, toss it with sun-dried sea salt, and sometimes add ogo (fresh seaweed) or inamona (roasted and crushed candlenuts).
Over the decades, poke would evolve with Hawaii’s melting pot culture. The influence of Asian cuisine saw the addition of soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onions; other local variations may include chili pepper, fish eggs, wasabi, and Maui onions. Yellowfin ahi tuna is usually the fish of choice, but poke today is also found with raw salmon, tako (octopus), various kinds of shellfish, or even tofu. Food historians haven’t decided whether or not the term “poke” was used to describe the dish before Captain Cook’s arrival to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, or if that specific title didn’t appear until the 1960s, but regardless, this raw fish salad (similar to ceviche, sans the citrus) has become a local culinary mainstay.
Which is why Hawaii residents were surprised this week to learn that Aloha Poke Co., a Chicago-based restaurant chain, has apparently trademarked the term “Aloha Poke” and for over a year, their lawyers have been sending cease-and-desist letters to other restaurants and catering businesses with similar names.
One of those letters went to Natasha Kahele, a woman of Native Hawaiian ancestry who owned a poke restaurant named Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska (she’s since rebranded her company as Lei’s Poke Stop.) Another letter went to Jeff Samson, co-owner of Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, Hawaii. (He decided to ignore the letter.)
“You can understand how your use of “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” is confusingly the same as Aloha Poke’s ALOHA POKE ® trademark,” the letter read. “While we do not seek to interfere with your business or your practice of selling poke cuisine, Aloha Poke cannot let these uses continue without harming its valuable trademark rights in and goodwill associated with its [r]egistered [t]rademarks.”
The idea to trademark his restaurant’s name wasn’t something Samson considered when he opened his Honolulu poke shop in 2016, the same year that Aloha Poke opened its business in Chicago. “‘How could you trademark aloha?’ How could you trademark poke?’” Samson asked in a recent interview with The Guardian.
The thing is, you can’t. “Aloha” is a complex Hawaiian sentiment that represents love, peace, compassion, and more. Although the word itself can be used as a casual hello or goodbye, it has a deep and profound significance to Native Hawaiians, the ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. In Hawaii, the Aloha Spirit is literally a state law, with Aloha defined in part as a “life force,” “more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation,” and “the working philosophy of [N]ative Hawaiians … presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.”
Aloha Poke Co. isn’t Hawaiian. Neither is its founder, Zach Friedlander, who is Jewish and a native of suburban Chicago. “We truly celebrate Hawaiian culture and what makes it so wonderful, which is very much the reason why we branded our business the way we did … We have been moved by the passionate defense of the Hawaiian culture displayed throughout social media,” Aloha Poke Co. announced in a recent non-apology on Facebook, in response to the growing backlash the company is receiving. “This trademark does not prevent another person or entity from using the world [a]loha alone or the word [p]oke alone in any instance,” the Facebook message continued. And yet, Aloha Poke Co.’s letter clearly demands the removal of not only “Aloha Poke” on all other restaurants and catering companies’ food, products, and services but simply “Aloha” as well. This all begs the question: Who’s infringing on whom?
The main issue here isn’t that Aloha Poke Co. is using the word “Aloha,” which the restaurant’s operators don’t seem to understand and have no claim to, other than thinking that Hawaii culture is cool. (And based on its heavily garnished Instagram photos of raw fish packed alongside ingredients like pineapple, seaweed salad, and jalapeño, it appears they don’t really understand what authentic “poke” is supposed to be either.) The real problem arose when this Chicago restaurant said that no other restaurant can use these two Hawaiian words—not even if the other place happens to be actually located in Hawaii or owned by Native Hawaiians.
This may seem like a lot of uproar over just a couple of words. But consider that after the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by American-backed businessmen in 1893, the Hawaiian language was prohibited from being spoken or taught in all of Hawaii’s schools beginning in 1896. This restriction would remain in place for over 90 years, until it was finally lifted in 1987. But by then, fluent Hawaiian speakers had diminished to such a degree that there was concern the language would be lost after the passing of the generation at that time. Thanks to the establishment of Hawaiian studies programs and language immersion programs throughout the state, Hawaii’s language and culture have been brought back from the brink.
Certain words, especially ones with regional significance, have a depth and meaning that goes beyond business. When you attempt to silence the voices of a native culture, it’s a big problem. They may come to represent a culture; a sense of place; an entire group of people. Don’t believe me? Ask your average Chicagoan if there’s a difference between Chicago-style deep dish pizza and New York-style thin crust. Better yet, see if it’s possible to trademark the phrase “Chicago-Style Deep Dish” and then tell people the trademark doesn’t prevent them from using the word “Chicago” alone or the word “Dish” alone in any instance. Then explain how moved you are by the passionate defense of Midwestern culture they’re displaying.
And in the meantime, let’s leave Hawaiian words exactly the way the Native Hawaiians intended it: with aloha for all.