Trademark enforcement, particularly in an age of social media and internet shaming, is tricky business. Some brands (I’m looking at you, Louis Vuitton) seem to have enough market share to ignore the social backlash from their heavy-handed demand letters. But companies that lack that kind of brand power could benefit from a bit more finesse in their enforcement efforts.
Aloha Poke Co. is a Chicago-based poke restaurant. Poke—a traditional Hawaiian dish of raw fish—has spread through the mainland in the form of fast-casual rice bowls topped with colorful veggies and sauces. Aloha Poke opened its first store in 2016. The company now boasts 15 locations across the U.S., including one right here in Minneapolis. Aloha Poke holds two trademark registrations, one of which is a word mark for ALOHA POKE. Despite the questionable trademark use of a word as ubiquitous as “Aloha,” the Trademark Office registered the mark without a single Office Action. The Trademark Office only required Aloha Poke to disclaim rights to the word “poke.”
Recently, Aloha Poke sent cease and desist letters to various poke shops across the country having “Aloha” in their names. “Aloha Poke would prefer to settle this matter amicably and without court intervention,” the letter read. “We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’” That doesn’t sound particularly amicable.
At least some of the restaurants receiving the letter were native Hawaiian-owned. Tasha Kahele is a native Hawaiian and the owner of what was formerly the Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska. After receiving Aloha’s letter, she changed her shop’s name to Lei’s Poke Stop. Aloha Poke’s demands that native Hawaiian people stop using two Hawaiian terms is not sitting well with many. Many have called Aloha Poke’s efforts a clear case of cultural appropriation. An online petition demanding that Aloha Poke stop using “Aloha” and “poke” has garnered over 150,000 signatures. Last week, hundreds of people gathered in protest outside the company’s Chicago headquarters.
In a statement on its Facebook page, Aloha Poke explained its reasons for sending the letters, indicated its respect for the Hawaiian culture, and apologized for “the confusion that this has caused.”
A company is wise to monitor and enforce its trademark rights. And indeed, Aloha Poke’s potential claims against poke restaurants with similar names do not appear legally frivolous on their face. But in terms of public image and even cultural awareness, Aloha Poke could have gone about its enforcement in a different way.