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How A Non-Native Poke Chain Trademarked ‘Aloha Poke’

Midwestern chain Aloha Poke is under fire for some questionable actions, as they’ve been accused of levying against poke shops owned by native Hawaiians.

For at least the past year, they’ve been sending out cease-and-desist letters to stores in locations ranging from Honolulu to Anchorage that used the phrase “Aloha Poke” in their names. That pressure has influenced many to change their names and avoid risking a potential lawsuit.

The letters have all had the same threatening tone: Stop using the words “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke” in the branding of your restaurant, or face legal consequences. It has cost some of these businesses thousands of dollars as they’ve been forced to rebrand. It has also hurt them from a cultural standpoint, as they’re being told to stop using a key phrase of their native language.

This has had Hawaiian communities both within and outside of the Aloha State in an uproar, with many taking to Yelp to attack the chain’s locations. There’s even been a petition launched to get the Chicago-based business to change their name completely.

The entire fiasco has been compounded by Aloha Poke’s defensive responses, and the fact that none of the owners of the chain are from Hawaii, which has natives calling out the restaurant group for “cultural appropriation.”

It’s disturbing to see a poke chain lash out against the culture that created it in such a way. What’s more perplexing, however, is how Aloha Poke managed to get trademarks for such a colloquial phrase in the first place. How did such important and general words in the Hawaiian language get such federal protections?

According to Eater Chicago, Aloha’s owner, Zach Frielander, filed for trademarks for his logo and restaurant chain name back in January 2016. They were approved six months later by the US Patent and Trademarks Office, who found the name to be nongeneric and distinctive enough to be approved per regulations.

However, for the state of Hawaii, at least, “Aloha Poke” should be considered generic enough to prohibit trademarking, especially considering the commonality of cultural importance of both words. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t have a good history of recognizing that when it comes to trademarks related to minority cultures.

A paper written in 2016 for a Stanford University writing contest brings this issue to light. It addresses how trademarks and copyrights have been used to bar ethnic groups in the United States from using some of their most revered cultural names. The Zia Sun symbol, for example, cannot be used by the Zia tribe that created it because it is on the New Mexico state flag and is thus protected. Likewise, many trademarks that use Native American tribe names like “Navajo” and “Cherokee” are not owned by the tribes of that name, and they cannot do anything about it since someone else has registered it.

For now, native Hawaiian poke shops experience that same level of powerlessness against Frielander because his company simply registered for the trademark first.

It is kind of ironic that a nonauthentic poke shop was able to trademark a name that you would associate with traditional Hawaiian poke. Nonetheless, until that is contested in federal court, the traditional, native-owned poke restaurants can either abide by the cease-and-desist letters they receive, or risk being sued.