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A Chicago-based restaurant chain is facing backlash for what some deem cultural appropriation.

Aloha Poke Co., the Chicago-based chain that in June opened its first Milwaukee location (at 220 E. Buffalo St. in the Third Ward), is in the hot seat over allegations of cultural appropriation.

The counter-service restaurants specialize in poke bowls, which mix raw, marinated fish (or other protein) with rice, vegetables and various sauces.

Poke (and its manifestations) is a fairly recent trend to hit the mainland United States. The word refers to how the fish is cut; the fish delicacy is part of traditional Hawaiian cuisine. While the Hawaiian word “aloha” is familiar to many simply as a greeting, it denotes compassion, love, kindness and more ‒ giving it deep cultural and spiritual meaning to native Hawaiians.

After a Hawaiian activist posted a video that details the Chicago company’s attempts to stop other businesses, in Hawaii and across the U.S., from using the words “Aloha” and “Poke” together, saying the company has trademarked the terms, a major backlash followed. That includes criticism on social media accusing the Chicago company of cultural appropriation and “bullying” small businesses, a podcast about trademarking native culture, protests in Chicago, and newspaper stories, including one in The Washington Post.

The Post article tells the story of Hawaii’s Aloha Poke Shop (unrelated to the chain), whose owner Jeffery Sampson received a letter from the attorneys for the Chicago-based poke company, “demanding that he change the business’s name, website, logo and materials to cease using the words ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ immediately,” per the Post story. 

Since these stories have come out, the Chicago company, which the Post notes “does not count any native Hawaiians as owners,” has gone on the defensive, claiming in a July 30 post on its Facebook that a “significant amount of misinformation has been shared on social media. … To this point, the company holds two federal trademarks for its design logo and the words ‘Aloha Poke’ for use in connection with restaurants, catering and take out services. This means that the company has the exclusive right to use those words together in connection with restaurant services within the US. This trademark does not prevent another person or entity from using the word Aloha alone or the word Poke alone in any instance. … 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.”

The company’s response has done little to dampen the flames. Some have posted on social media that the chain’s actions are the opposite of what the word “aloha” means. “So not pono,” someone commented on a Facebook thread about the debacle. “Pono” is roughly translated as righteousness, honor or good, and is part of Hawaii’s state motto, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka Aina i ka Pono” – “The Life of the Land Is Perpetuated in Righteousness.”

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