Aloha Pokē Co. Offers Neither

By Ramsay Mahealani Taum & Teri Freitas Gorman

The recent flurry of cease and desist letters unleashed by Aloha Pokē Co.’s lawyers has rightfully resulted in a passionate backlash from Native Hawaiians, other indigenous peoples, and those for whom cultural exploitation leaves a bad aftertaste. Their actions say, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” That is not aloha.

Aloha is a way of being. It is at the heart and spirit of a rich culture, the identity of its people and their ancestral home. The spirit of aloha is rooted in principles of giving and receiving, seeks to do no harm, uplifts people, and leaves places better than when they were found. Aloha Pokē Co.’s litigious spirit and actions contradict all that is aloha and Hawai’i.

In response to the recent public outcry, Aloha Pokē Co. issued a disingenuous apology that said, “...how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.” This is not an apology. It merely says the company regrets its behavior triggered a response that damaged its reputation. A sincere apology comes with amends, or at the very least, a promise to change future behavior. The company has offered neither. In fact, it used its “apology” as an opportunity to reassert its legal right to protect “its assets” by suing small businesses--some of which are owned by Native Hawaiian families, the true, moral owners of these words.

The company’s website describes itself as “Chicago’s pokē pioneer.” One might inaccurately conclude that this company created “pokē". Any “pioneer,” should know that when spelled correctly there is no kahakō (Hawaiian diacritical mark) over the “e” in poke. To add insult to injury, the company’s menu lists ingredients and seasonings not found in any traditional or modern poke recipe. While it is free to combine and sell anything in a bowl raw, cooked, canned or otherwise, what the company is selling to uninformed consumers is definitely not poke. The truth is, Aloha Pokē Co. misrepresents both “aloha” and “poke” in practice and in definition.

To Chris Birkinshaw, CEO of Aloha Pokē Co., we offer you this free Hawaiian language lesson: E holo i ka pono. It means “do the right thing.” In this case, the right thing is to acknowledge that in business and in life, “ethical” is a far superior standard to “legal.” While ignorance and poor judgment may be forgivable, ignoring the harm your behavior has caused, whether intended or unintended, is not.

We call on you to cease and desist taking legal action against small family-owned businesses selling authentic, traditional poke that use the words “Poke” or “Aloha,” alone or in combination. Your company clearly doesn’t understand, practice, or own the rights to, either of those words, used alone or in combination.

We also ask you to consider the difference between ignorance and ignoring. Continuing to pursue legal action against the people and culture you claim to honor and respect ignores all that is pono — decent, proper and correct.

Mr. Birkinshaw, we further ask that you seriously consider renaming and rebranding your business instead of asking others to do the same. The name Aloha Pokē Co. now represents all that is wrong with profiteering through cultural appropriation while hiding behind United States trademark law. Exploitation and greed are not ingredients found in aloha or poke.


Ramsay Mahealani Taum is a Hawaiian community leader, cultural practitioner and teacher. Teri Freitas Gorman serves as president of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. Both are descendants of Hawaiʻi’s first people.


This op-ed (denoting or printed on the page opposite the editorial page in a
newspaper, devoted to commentary, etc.) was submitted to
the Chicago Tribune and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.