A big part of the fun at the Japanese chain Benihana is watching the chef theatrically chop and cook your food on the teppanyaki table in front of you. But the story behind Benihana’s rise to success is just as dramatic as when the chef flings a piece of shrimp up in the air and catches it in his hat.
1. BENIHANA WAS NAMED AFTER A FLOWER THAT SURVIVED WWII BOMBING IN JAPAN.
Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki named his restaurant after a coffee shop of the same name in Tokyo that his parents, Yunosuke and Katsu, owned. Sometime following the Bombing of Tokyo during World War II, Yunosuke saw one red flower growing in the rubble. Thus, the couple decided to call their coffee shop Benihana, from the Japanese word for a red safflower.
2. AOKI WAS AN OLYMPIC WRESTLER WITH ZERO COOKING EXPERIENCE.
Born in Tokyo in 1938, Aoki wrestled at Keio University and earned a spot on Japan’s 1960 Olympic wrestling team. Although he didn’t end up competing in the Olympics, he moved to the U.S. thanks to a wrestling college scholarship and won several titles in the early 1960s. Aoki was focused on wrestling, and he later admitted that the only dish he could cook was French toast, and that his favorite food was spaghetti. In 1995, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
3. AOKI DROVE A MR. SOFTEE ICE CREAM TRUCK IN HARLEM TO EARN THE SEED MONEY TO START BENIHANA.
While he was wrestling, Aoki was also studying restaurant management at New York City Technical College. After renting a Mr. Softee ice cream truck, he drove around Harlem, selling ice cream with tiny Japanese umbrellas on top. Because Harlem was a rough neighborhood, Aoki posted a warning to potential muggers—a newspaper article about his wrestling prowess—on his truck. By 1963, he had saved $10,000 from his ice cream business.
4. AOKI WAS ONLY 25 WHEN HE OPENED THE FIRST BENIHANA.
In addition to the $10,000 he earned by selling ice cream, Aoki got his father to invest money in his restaurant. In 1964, Aoki opened the first Benihana on West 56th Street in Manhattan. Aoki started simple: his restaurant was four tables, and he served the American standard entrees of chicken, steak, shrimp, and vegetables. Because he didn’t know how to cook, he hired skilled Japanese chefs who had learned the English language, showmanship, and American manners.
5. BENIHANA WAS INITIALLY NOT SUCCESSFUL, BUT A POSITIVE REVIEW HELPED IT BLOW UP.
Benihana’s first six months were rough. The restaurant was losing money, and Aoki’s novel concepts of merging teppanyaki with showmanship and seating strangers at the same dining table seemed to be failing. In early 1965, though, New York Herald Tribune food writer Clementine Paddleford wrote an extremely positive review of Benihana. New Yorkers, as well as celebrities like Muhammad Ali and the Beatles, then made the restaurant a hit. By 1975, Aoki had 25 successful Benihana locations across the country.
6. AOKI TURNED HIS SENSE OF ADVENTURE INTO BENIHANA BRANDING OPPORTUNITIES…
Aoki coupled his drive to promote Benihana with his adventurous, risk-taking spirit. In the 1970s and 1980s, he raced Benihana-branded cars and powerboats, narrowly surviving a powerboat crash near the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1981, Aoki broke a world record for the longest hot air balloon flight when he traveled 5208 miles across the Pacific Ocean (from Japan to California) in a Benihana-branded balloon. He held that world record for the next 34 years. Aoki also won a backgammon world title, sponsored a Miss Benihana beauty pageant, and made sure he was photographed in the Jacuzzi of his stretch Rolls-Royce.
7. … BUT HE ALSO PARTICIPATED IN ECLECTIC BUSINESS VENTURES APART FROM BENIHANA.
In 1970, Aoki opened Club Genesis, a disco club with a French restaurant, dance floor, and game room. He closed it a year later but then started a porn magazine called Genesis in 1973. Aoki also sponsored boxing matches and produced Broadway plays, investing $150,000 in The Incomparable Max and $80,000 in Joan Rivers's play Fun City in the 1970s. In the 1990s, Aoki sold diet pills called Rocky Aoki’s Ultra Herbal Power Slim.
8. BENIHANA HAS BECOME SYNONYMOUS WITH BIRTHDAY DINNERS.
A big part of Benihana’s business today is helping people celebrate their birthdays. If you sign up online for Benihana’s email list and join The Chef’s Table, you’ll get a $30 certificate to spend at the restaurant during the month of your birthday. Given the average price of entrees on the menu, you essentially get a free birthday dinner, courtesy of Benihana.
9. AOKI SUED FOUR OF HIS KIDS IN A FEUD OVER HIS BENIHANA MONEY…
In the late 1990s, after Aoki pled guilty to insider trading and stepped down as chairman of Benihana, he put his Benihana stakes in a trust. In 2005, he sued four of his seven kids, claiming that they were disloyal, incompetent, and trying to get control of his money. His kids asserted that they were trying to protect their inheritance and stake in the Benihana of Tokyo trust from Aoki’s younger third wife, Keiko Ono, whom they viewed as a gold digger. "But money not everything," Aoki told New York Magazine in 2007. "Just 99 percent."
10. … AND THE LAWSUITS CONTINUED AFTER HIS DEATH IN 2008.
After Aoki died in 2008, multiple lawsuits and countersuits between his heirs and his third wife continued. In 2013, Keiko won greater control as the trustee of the Benihana trust, but the next year a court overturned that ruling, giving two of Aoki’s kids, Steve and Devon, 50% each of the trust when they turn 45 years old. Steve is a world-famous EDM DJ, owner of the Dim Mak record label, and Grammy-nominated producer, and Devon is a model (who was once the face of Versace) and actress.
11. AOKI "APPEARS" ON SCREEN IN THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.
Warning: Video includes profanity.
The 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street features a cameo of an actor portraying Rocky Aoki being arrested for his shady business dealings. The inclusion of Aoki in the film, though, is entirely fictional—Aoki was not connected in any way to stockbroker Jordan Belfort. They just both had a love of lavish things.