Chicago Poke Chain Sends C&D To Hawaiian Poke Joint Demanding It Not Be Named 'Aloha Poke'
from the poke-in-the-i dept
Usually a trademark bully bullying over a mark that is fairly generic is enough to get the hair on our backs to stand up. When you add in a little irony in the form of the bully engaging in fairly blatant cultural appropriation for that generic mark, things get even more salty. But when you then have the bully spout off thinly-veiled political language of the most annoying variety in response to the backlash, you have something of a unique dish of hatred.
Which brings me to Aloha Poke Co. of Chicago. Aloha Poke Co. is a chain of restaurants cashing in on the poke craze. It is not owned by Hawaiians, the language from which the word “Aloha” is quite famously taken. It does not operate in Hawaii. And, yet, it has seen fit to fire off a cease and desist notice to the Aloha Poke Shop in Honolulu, demanding that it immediately change its name and branding.
The lawyers with the firm represented a company from the city, the Aloha Poke Co., that had jumped on one of the latest food trends – selling the Hawaiian staple poke, made from raw marinated ahi tuna – in 2016 and quickly expanded their reach to more than a dozen locations in Chicago and cities such as Milwaukee, Denver, and Washington D.C.
Sampson also operated a poke shop, a luncheonette of 20 seats that he had opened with three friends in downtown Honolulu that shared little in common with the Chicago chain besides the dish and, coincidentally or not, given the commonality of the Hawaiian word, the name. When Sampson and friends opened the luncheonette about a year and a half ago, they had named it the Aloha Poke Shop, using the traditional Hawaiian greeting and word of welcoming. Now the lawyers, with the firm Olson and Cepuritis, Ltd., were demanding that he change the business’s name, website, logo and materials to cease using the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” immediately.
Now, Aloha is a multi-meaning word of Hawaiian origin that is also used as a greeting on the island. Famously so, in fact. In connection with anything Hawaiian, it’s about as generic as it gets as a source-identifier. Poke is the name of the dish these restaurants sell. It is purely descriptive. Putting a generic term next to one that is purely descriptive ought to be fairly easy for the USPTO to have looked at and realized that it never should have been afforded trademark protection. But, since it did, the end result is that Aloha Poke Co. has been going around the country, including in markets in which it does not operate, and demanding that native Hawaiians stop using their own language for their businesses. That really is about as insane as it gets.
And the public backlash to all of this has been swift.
But the news that the Midwestern chain, which doesn’t count any native Hawaiians among its founders, was sending cease-and-desist letters to threaten small poke restaurants not only in Hawaii, but around the country, has set off an even deeper round of anger, touching on longstanding wounds left from Hawaii’s long history of colonialism and commodification at the hands of outsiders.
The disclosures about the cease-and-desist letters have resulted in calls to boycott the Chicago chain, including a petition to urge the company to drop the words from its name. A congressional candidate from Hawaii has issued a sharp rebuke on social media. And hundreds of angry commenters have flocked to the chain’s social media pages to express their displeasure, accusing the company of cultural appropriation, of bullying small businesses, of disrespecting Hawaiian culture and well, not even making real poke in the first place.
To be honest, the emphasis on cultural appropriation doesn’t impact me all that much as to the validity of the trademark. Such appropriation may be gross, but as a matter of law it should be clear that the better argument is that Aloha Poke Co.’s trademark is far too broad and generic to serve to identify the source of its product to the public. Frankly, I was somewhat inclined to ignore all of the consternation about cultural appropriation entirely, until the Aloha Poke Co. and its founder decided to speak up using barely-coded language to, ahem, poke its detractors in the eye.
“First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering,” the company said. “In the rare instance where we have needed to send notices to those using our trademark in the restaurant industry, we have done so in a cooperative manner, and all have complied with our request to rebrand without any resulting legal action. Not a single business has closed as a result of this.”
Triggering? Cool PR you guys have there. And, from the founder, Zach Friedlander, who is no longer with the company but has supported its efforts at trademark bullying.
The company’s founder, Zach Friedlander, who left it earlier this year around the time former Potbelly executive Chris Birkinshaw was brought on as CEO, according to Eater, defended the company’s actions on Facebook as “efforts taken to protect, as any business would, its brand” and labeled some of the criticism as “false news” and a “witch hunt.”
It seems Hawaiian language isn’t the only thing Aloha Poke Co. appropriates from. Still, the end result of all of this should be sobering for the chain. Calls for boycotts, an infestation of negative comments on its social media pages, not to mention that Sampson has decided to stand his ground and not change a thing about his Aloha Poke Shop mean that the only move the chain has left is either to slink away or, worse, actually take a Hawaiian native to court over all of this. Either would serve as an own-goal for its business.