Like any good story, ours begins with the descendent of a samurai warrior and a small Tokyo coffee shop. Just after the war, Yunosuke Aoki (a samurai descendent and popular entertainer) decided to start a coffee shop with his wife, Katsu. Wanting to offer something different than other coffee shops in the area, Yunosuke Aoki rode his bike over 20 miles to purchase real sugar to serve in his shop.
This flair for doing something different caught the eye of his son, Hiroaki. As did the shop’s name: Benihana. After college, Hiroaki (or Rocky, as he would become known) moved to the U.S. to pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant. One that combined his father’s flair for doing something different with food that was truly memorable. But with little money to his name, Rocky’s path was not an easy one.
He started by selling ice cream on the streets of Harlem while studying restaurant management at night. The ice cream business turned out to be very profitable, thanks in part to the colorful Japanese cocktail umbrellas he added to the treats, and he managed to save up $10,000 for his restaurant.
With his seed money in place, Rocky took out a loan and used it to start America’s first teppanyaki restaurant on West 56th street. Named after his parents’ Tokyo coffee shop, Benihana opened in 1964, featuring an authentic Japanese farmhouse interior and food prepared on steel grills right in front of customers. His highly trained chefs delighted customers with intricate knife work and theatrics. Not to mention delicious food. But it wasn’t until legendary food critic Clementine Paddleford gave Benihana a rave review that the restaurant really took off, paying for itself in just six months.
Soon after, Rocky opened a second location in New York and one in Chicago. By 1972, there were six Benihana locations in the United states, with more opening every day. Sadly, Rocky Aoki died in 2008 at the age of 69. But, his legacy lives on with more than 70 Benihana restaurants in the United States, Caribbean, and Central and South America, and more than 100 million meals served.