When Chris Birkinshaw became CEO of Chicago-based restaurant Aloha Poke Co in April 2018, he was riding a wave of healthy food enthusiasm that saw poke’s popularity increase across the mainland. Within months, however, that wave was crashing down around him.
Controversy began when lawyers for Aloha Poke Co, which trademarked its name, sent cease-and-desist letters to other poke restaurants with the words “aloha” and “poke” in their name, warning them to change their name or face legal consequences. When Hawaii business owners received these letters, it was perceived to be more than a commonplace business practice. It was an attempt to “assert control over Olelo Hawaii,” according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Change.org called Aloha Poke Co “part of a progressive wave of gentrification, commodification, and cultural appropriation that is criminalizing and driving out poor and people of color from the urban core.”
Protests were organized. A bipartisan resolution was passed in the state legislature to create a task force to protect Hawaii’s intellectual and cultural property. A Change.org petition to get Aloha Poke Co to change its name garnered over 170,000 signatures. Aloha Poke Co issued an apology “for all the confusion that this [situation] has caused.”
In spite of the backlash, Aloha Poke Co, which currently has 18 restaurants, is forging ahead with an expansion plan to add 100 more locations in the next three years.
“I think that obviously the approach prior to me coming on board could have been handled more delicately,” Birkinshaw told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re taking more of a nuanced and situational approach to protecting the trademark.” Specifically, they plan on only sending cease-and-desist letters to poke restaurants in their same regional market.
Most of Aloha Poke Co’s expansion is focused in the Central and Eastern time zones: the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Completion of the expansion would make Aloha Poke Co the largest poke chain in America, eclipsing California-based Poke Bar (68 locations) and New York-based Pokeworks (37 locations), both of which are also planning to expand.
As poke’s popularity continues to spread across the mainland, protesters only hope that aloha — genuine aloha — will spread with it.
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