Chicago Eatery’s Legalistic ‘Apology’ Enrages Court of Public Opinion
A fledgling restaurant chain based in Chicago is handling its crisis communications so badly we fear it could do permanent damage to itself. The situation points to the importance of thinking through reputational issues when pursuing a legal strategy and of being scrupulously honest in your messaging.
Aloha Poke Co., which sells a version of the trendy sushi bowls from Hawaii, started in early 2016 and is growing quickly, with 10 locations in and around Chicago and others in Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., according to its website.
Last weekend, social media burned with anger at news that Aloha Poke Co. has been sending cease-and-desist letters to restaurants around the country that use “Aloha Poke” in their names, contending they are violating its trademarks.
It didn’t go over well that a Chicago company started by non-Hawaiians selling Hawaiian food claimed it controlled both the food’s name and the most recognized word in the Hawaiian language (and one of respect, not litigation). The term cultural appropriationis being used a lot in the commentary.
Boycott has also been invoked. A Change.org petition seeking to get the company to remove aloha and poke from itsname has more than 64,000 signatures. A Facebook page called NoAlohaPokeCo has popped up.
By Monday, the company had had enough. It posted a response — a non-apology apology — on its Facebook page that was so dripping with condescension and legal sleights of hand that it has only inflamed the situation (to make matters worse, the post is not signed by a human being).
Aloha Poke Co. pouted that the charges against it are unfair. It referred to “misinformation” that it understood upset people because of their devotion to Hawaiian culture. The statement had this odd sentence: “First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering.” Triggering?
The company wanted to set the record straight. It hasn’t tried to own aloha and poke; only when they’re used for a restaurant. It didn’t sue; it threatened to sue. It didn’t impose gag orders;it sent cease-and-desist letters. It hasn’t told Hawaiian businessesthey can’t use aloha or poke.
“What we have done is attempted to stop trademark infringers in the restaurant industry from using the trademark ‘Aloha Poke’ without permission,” it said.
You picked two of our most common words and attached your trademark to the entire restaurant/catering business.
— Facebook commenter to Aloha Poke Co.
Thanks for clearing that up, Aloha Poke Co. And congratulations: You proved that your critics (formerly your potential customers) are not the legal eagles you are and are not hip to the legal niceties. You win!
Here’s the worst part: The company lied. It said it wasn’t telling restaurants they couldn’t use aloha alone. But its cease-and-desist letter to one restaurant (in Hawaii, as it happens) clearly belies this. The letter states, “Your use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke’ in promoting, marketing and selling your food” violates Aloha Poke Co.’s trademarks.
The Facebook responses — over 3,800 of them — have been brutal. This one (which was written in all caps) sums it up nicely:
“You picked two of our most common words and attached your trademark to the entire restaurant/catering business. Aloha & poke are both commonly used in business names. You have shamed yourself.”
And then there’s this:
“Hope that legalese nonsense apology comes in handy when you have to file for bankruptcy.”
The bottom line: It is no longer acceptable to pursue a legal strategy without thinking of the reputational issues. We’re not saying it’s obvious that Aloha Poke Co. shouldn’t protect its trademarks. But we think it will soon find out whether it was worth it.
Photo Credit: Aloha Poke Co.
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