The Birth of Benihana
After the devastation of World War II, Rocky’s father Yunosuke Aoki found Red Flowers growing in the rubble of Tokyo. He saw these red flowers as a symbol of Strength and Survival and decided to build his restaurant on that spot and name his first restaurant, Benihana, which means “Red Flower.”
After Rocky came to the United States, he saved $10,000 selling ice cream from his ice cream truck in Harlem, various part-time jobs, and a $10,000 loan from the bank. In May 1964, with $20,000 start-up money, Rocky decided to open his first Benihana restaurant with four teppanyaki tables in New York City.
Back in the Edo period of Japan, there was no refrigeration. Fish were caught daily and put on ice to keep fresh and served raw. Customers would go to the sushi counter and interact with the chef asking, “What special fish do you have today “? The Sushi Chef would respond, “I have fresh Maguro.., would you like to try some”? This idea of customer interaction with the chef was incorporated into the Benihana Concept. Rocky’s idea was to create a concept combining aspects from the Edo period Sushi (500 years old) with Okonomiyaki (home cooking). Okonomiyaki is very common in Japanese households where families gather around a small steel grill and cook various types of Japanese Pancakes. Rocky decided to make a large teppanyaki grill, much larger than the Okonomiyaki grill. His father came to visit him and saw no customers. His father said, “Why don’t you have the chef perform and interact with customers.” This concept was the first Teppanyaki style dining restaurant in the United States, and he introduced many main Japanese ingredients, such as soy sauce, to the American people.
During the first six months of Benihana’s operation, the restaurant had no customers. Rocky had a tough time getting customers in the door. Rocky’s mother helped pay for his restaurant expenses such as rent, food, and other restaurant supplies. She worked as a waitress at Aki, a Japanese restaurant near Columbia University, and gave Rocky money to help keep the restaurant alive. Following his father’s suggestion, if he had his chefs perform while cooking: this would work in New York. Having the chefs juggle salt and pepper shakers and display knife cutting skills would be something new. Rocky decided to visit Clementine Paddleford, food critic for the New York Herald Tribune, six months later. He explained to his wife about the restaurant concept and extended an invitation for her to come and taste the food. Rocky said, “She was very tough.” She asked so many questions. After visiting Benihana, a few days later, she wrote a rave review about her experience at Benihanaand the new groundbreaking restaurant concept. The restaurant then was overwhelmed with business. There was a line out the door and around the building of customers. There were so many customers, and most had to be turned away since the restaurant only had four tables. There was such a high demand for Benihana and his vision, and Rocky decided to expand his business by opening more restaurants across America.
Rocky promoted his brand by flying a Benihana hot air balloon across the Pacific and racing his own Benihana Motor Boat. Many people discovered the brand through these fantastic activities. The story of his success is still one of the most studied cases at Harvard Business School. Today there are 101 Benihana Restaurants worldwide, and our company is still growing, a true sign of strength and survival.