History

15 Things You Might Not Have Known about Benihana and Founder Rocky Aoki and Fam

Hiroaki Aoki is best known as Rocky Aoki, and he made Benihana legendary amongst Japanese American restaurants. That legendary status continues, and his two most famous kids, Steve, and Devon Aoki, are making names for themselves while his five other kids aren’t doing so bad either.

Main image courtesy of Benihana, Inc. Originally posted on Jan 28, ’21, and updated on June 6, ’23.

Regardless if you spell it Benny Hannas or Benihana, here are 15 things you might not have known aside from not knowing how to spell Benihana.

Long before Americans dared to eat things raw, and soy sauce was unheard of, diners demanded their beef, chicken, and seafood all be cooked. The only raw item was a salad and that was hippy food when Benihana opened in 1964.

Rocky Aoki opened Benihana at the latter half of the civil rights movement and at a time when Kyu Sakamoto was the first non-European language song to make the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1963.
Photo Description: a shot of the teppan which is a steel griddle a lot like the ones you would find in any diner.
Feel free to flip those shrimp right into my mouth like I am a trained seal. Image courtesy of LizzyinFocus who hands down has the best imagery of Benihana on Flickr.

If you are wondering if Japanese Benihana “hibachi” sauces are “authentic?” I have got your answer in a dedicated post of the ingredients used and their similarities to traditional Japanese cuisine, click here.

They are an Asian American concoction that taste like the 60s or in the midwest, it is the definitive flavor of Asian American cuisine in the region.
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It is not hibachi, it is teppanyaki.

Benihana gets it right, but in the Midwest, teppanyaki has been marketed as “hibachi,” which is a room heater and has nothing to do with food (lost in translation because many owners are not Japanese).

Many Japanese Americans followed suit in starting teppanyaki restaurants in the United States (like the Yamanaka family in Kansas City, Missouri) due to the success of Rocky Aoki and Benihana.

Unfortunately, many of those businesses were later closed (due to an aging staff/owner) or sold off to non-Japanese owners, so the use of the word hibachi was often mis-used by non-native speaking proprietors.
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Benihana means “Beni 紅” (crimson or deep red) and “Hana 花” (flower).

I know this because “beni shoga” and “hana matsuri.” The name was taken from his parents coffee shop in Japan.

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Hiroaki was a wrestler who qualified for the 1960 summer Olympics, but he did not attend.

Thanks to good ole Wikipedia, I can tell you that he was at least later inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1995.

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Aoki started the company with $10k (equivalent to $82,436 in 2019 that he made driving an ice cream truck in Harlem).

What a hustler.

What was a lot of money in the 60s? My mom bought her ’68 Mustang for $2,500 (she still has the original receipt), and in Full Metal Jacket, $10 gets you beaucoup love.

If you do not adjust for inflation like I have, you will have a distorted perspective on what $10 can get you. So in 1968, $2,500 would be equivalent to $21k and $5=$42, $10=$84, and $15=$126.
Photo Description: the West 56th street Benihana in New York City.
Yo kid, this is the West 56th Street location in New York City. Image courtesy of Leonard J. DeFrancisci
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Benihana was founded by Hiroaki Aoki in New York in 1964.

His first place was on 47 West 56th street and it is still operating.

The first legit sushi restaurant opened around 1965 in Los Angeles on the second floor of Kawafuku “Sukiyaki House.” It was located at 204 1st St, in the Little Tokyo area. The legendary restaurant was unfortunately torn down for a hotel, the New Otani which is now a Doubletree.

I highly recommend reading this article by the LAtimes.com on Kawafuku, and if you are an EDM fan, Skrillex produced Kyoto off the Bangarang EP at the DoubleTree.
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Rocky Aoki had 3 wives and 7 kids.

Rocky hustled personally and in business. Two of his kids most of you know, Steve Aoki and Devon Aoki. The other five are Echo Aoki, Kevin Aoki, Jen Aoki Crumb, Kana Grace Nootenboom, and Kyle Aoki.

Kevin (Steve Aoki’s brother) is a restauranteur of the Aoki Group which owns (locations in Florida, Hawaii, to California):

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Hiroaki Aoki is the father of EDM artist Steve Aoki and Fast’n’Furious star Devon Aoki.

In case you live under a rock www.steveaoki.com and instagram/devonaoki

What are the most popular Steve Aoki songs? According to
Singersroom: Muñecas, Discotech (of all time): Azukita, and Billboard: Pursuit of Happiness.

Singersroom.com, Billboard.com, and Discotech.
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Rocky Aoki started a softcore porno mag named Genesis, partially funded the first hot air balloon to cross the pacific (Double Eagle V), and raced power boats (twin hulls).

I personally can only ride a bike regarding my talents, and I doubt most people can come close to Rocky Aoki’s accolades.

Photo Description: one of the chefs at Benihana in the good ole US of A. On the teppanyaki the fried rice is shaped in the shape of a heart.
Your wingman on prom dates and dates in general. Image courtesy of Benihana, Inc.
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Aoki passed away in 2008 at the age of 69.

69, bro had the rizz even in death.

How much does it cost to eat at Benihana? entrée menu prices are about $20-$40 each for either chicken, steak, chateaubriand, shrimp, colossal shrimp, tuna steak, salmon, scallops, to twin lobster tails. So you might want to go with someone lobster tail worthy.

Unless you already have two other babies mama/daddies, then don’t let me stop your Rocky Aoki like streak.
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In 2012, Benihana was purchased for $296 million by the private equity company Angelo Gordon & Company.

Benihana to Be Acquired by Angelo, Gordon & Co.’s Private Equity Group for $296 Million.

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Benihana has approximately 78 locations and 10 franchised restaurants throughout the United States, Central and South America.

Angelo Gordon has refinanced Benihana.

Is Benihana Americanized Japanese food? Like many things in Muuuuuurica, Benihana is on par with Panda Express, PF Changs, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, to Pizza Hut when it comes to their authenticity (yea, no fiery volcanoes or feeding patrons like trained seals in Japan).

Teppanyaki in Japan are typically fine-dining spots well known for cooking up seafood, vegetables, and Japanese beef (wagyu).
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The private equity company also owns and operates Benihana, Samurai, Haru, and RA sushi (Benihana, Inc./BI).

Angelo Gordon has been investing in global credit and real estate markets for over 30 years.

Photo Description: a shot of a dining area of a Benihana in Bangkok, Thailand. The dining area has rows and rows of teppanyaki grills. Each grill has 5 place settings, 3 directly in front and 2 on the side. Directly above each tappanyaki are ducts with spotlighting (5 recessed lights). The seats are red with all black framing. You can see outside due to the large floor to ceiling windows and outside are palm trees.
This is how they do it in Bangkok, Thailand. Image courtesy of Roderick Eime
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A second entity is Benihana of Tokyo, LLC (BOT) headed by the 3rd wife and CEO, Keiko Aoki. She owns and operates approximately 20 restaurants in Hawaii, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Benihana widow says hedge fund pushing her to sell.

At the age of 45, both Devon (currently 38 y/o) and Steve Aoki (43 y/o) will inherit a shared sum of 50 million dollars.

Benihana heirs try to stop stepmom from wasting inheritance (Devon was born on August 10th, 1982 and Steve on November 30th, 1977).

Due to the continued popularity of teppanyaki restaurants, many non-Japanese have transformed the style into an Americanized version with their infusions. Most owners are Chinese and a other ethnicities that have made it their own in our ever-changing American food culture.

Nothing beats the taste of wok hei over a griddle tho.

The Mental Floss article has a great “11 facts about Benihana” and the vast majority of their information is not readily found on the web, it is more in-depth.

Hey, I got to give credit where credit is due, and I highly suggest you head on over to the MentalFloss article because Suzanne Raga threw down (I am not exaggerating).

Why the Somewhat Redundant Benihana Content?

I did it because there is a certain nostalgia and fame associated with Benihana, even though I have not been in decades.

Also, as a constant reminder, I passed by the Benihana off Irvine Avenue on my way to work while living in Newport Heights (of Newport Beach) next door to Steve Aoki’s high school, Newport Harbor high school.

Anybody Asian American, especially Japanese American has a certain nostalgia for the Karate Kid and Benihana because they were positive examples of Japanese culture (I cannot say the same for Sixteen Candles and Long Duk Dong).

Gedde Watanabe is the Japanese American actor who played an “Asian” foreign exchange student. Also, RIP Pat Morita.

Also, I never went after finding out that a private equity took over because I thought it was over for the brand. Except, after all the research I just did, I think Angelo Gordon is doing just fine carrying on the Japanese-inspired icon for decades to come, which is why I have a renewed interest in hitting up the location on Tamarac Drive in Denver. Oddly enough, the one in Newport Beach was also only minutes away. – a good omen?

6 comments

  1. Awesome post! I had checked into this a little, but didn’t find nearly as much information as you. Perhaps I was a little lazy. I have not been to Benihanna, but did stop in at a competitor in Montreal. I cannot remember the name, but it was okay.
    Now you have made me hungry. I was going to work on my post for today (I am late) but now I have to have an early lunch.

      1. It’s just there are not a whole lot of Japanese in the US, so many restaurants are owned and operated by non-Japanese who don’t know the difference from yakitori, hibachi, to yakiniku…. you got it right tho by saying “advertised as Japanese” haha

      2. In Toronto, most Japanese restaurants are owned/run by Koreans. Lately, they have presented menus which showcase both cuisines.

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