National chain forces native Hawaiian to drop “Aloha Poke” from Anchorage restaurant

Tasha Kahele is a native Hawaiian and owner of Lei’s Poke Stop in Anchorage. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

An Anchorage restaurant owner has found herself in the middle of a national debate involving trademark infringement and cultural appropriation.

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Tasha Kahele is a native Hawaiian. In April, she opened Aloha Poke Stop. Then in May, she got a letter from a Chicago-based chain demanding she change her restaurant’s name.

“I may be a little bias, but think we make some of the best poke in Anchorage here,” Kahele said, sitting at a table in her restaurant.

In Hawaiian, the word poke means to dice, cube or cut. At Kahele’s shop, you can order cubed, raw fish with wasabi ginger, have it Hawaiian style with limu– the Hawaiian word for seaweed, even California style with avocado, crab, and cucumbers.

Poke is a staple of the native Hawaiian culture.

In Hawaiian, the word poke means to dice, cube, or cut. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

“We have poke at our luaus, we have poke at our get-togethers,” Kahele explained.

Another staple of that culture is the word Aloha.

“When you walk into a business that has ‘Aloha,’ and you have a Native Hawaiian family working in [the business], you can expect that kind of spirit, that kind of food, that kind of experience when you walk in the door,” Kahele said.

But just weeks after opening, Kahele got a letter. It was from a lawyer representing the Chicago-based Aloha Poke Company, which is owned and operated by non-Hawaiians.

“Your use of ‘Aloha,’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ must cease immediately,” the letter read.

Kahele was devastated, but knew she couldn’t afford the legal fees to fight it.

“This is not our first business, so I understand the copyright [law], which is why we are so torn,” Kahele said. “We knew that we’d have to comply, but this is kind of different. [Aloha] was a word that they should never have been able to trademark or copyright, especially those two words [Aloha and Poke] together.”

A letter similar to Kahele’s was made public after it was sent to another native Hawaiian business owner. It spread online, creating a massive, angry uproar.

The Aloha Poke Company has since apologized on its Facebook page. To those who care about Hawaiian culture, it said, “we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.”

“It’s hard to accept an apology that doesn’t sound so genuine,” Kahele responded. “It leaves out a lot.”

On top of that, the company is still insisting it owns ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ when used in connection with restaurants, catering and take-out service.

Tasha Kahele had to replace signs, menus, and advertisements after being forced to re-brand her poke shop. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Kahele said it’s not right for a company to try to take ownership of her people’s native language.

“I know some people are like, ‘[Aloha] is just a generic word, everyone says it,’” Kahele said. “But not to our people, it’s not. Aloha encompasses everything,” Kahele explained. “We live aloha, we give it, we share it. It’s not to be restricted and I think that’s why it’s so triggering to people and it’s so offensive and it’s so hurtful. It’s hurtful– for our family it’s hurtful.”

For native Hawaiian’s like Kahele, though, this appropriation of her culture is not new.

“Hawaii has been commercialized and colonized and our culture has been appropriated in so many ways,” Kahele said.

Like, Kahele said, associating any Hawaiian style food with pineapple. Customers will come into her shop and ask about her traditional style of poke.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, the Hawaiian style poke– does that have pineapples in it? And I’m like, ‘No, it has a very traditional nut base–kukui nut base– that makes it Hawaiian.”

Kahele’s restaurant shows off her traditional food and native culture. It’s also a family business, which is why Kahele chose to rename her shop Lei’s Poke Stop, after her daughter.

“If at another time we have to fight anyone for the name ‘Lei,’” Kahele said, “good luck.”

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Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage
Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.