Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki is the founder of Benihana Restaurants, which brought Japan's teppan table cooking to America. The popular chain of Japanese style eateries are located in the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Thailand. He is also a world-class sportsman and participates in long-distance road rallies, speedboat racing, and ballooning. He is a noted philanthropist and fundraiser. His charitable interests include international art exchanges and environmental causes.
Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki was born on October 9, 1938, in Tokyo, Japan. He was the first child of Yunosuke and Katsu Aoki, a well-to-do couple. Rocky's parents owned a popular Tokyo jazz, coffee, and tea club, named Ellington after celebrated American jazz musician Duke Ellington.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, Japan and the United States entered into a state of war. Despite this, the Aokis stayed in Tokyo until 1944. Then the war forced them to leave and the family moved to Rocky's mother's hometown in the rural province of Gumma. After the war, the Aoki family returned to Tokyo. They started a new enterprise in the nearly destroyed city, a restaurant called Benihana.
Rocky Aoki attended Keio, an exclusive private high school in Tokyo. He then pursued his studies at Keio University. He was a gifted student, but was in trouble more than once for fighting. Athletics are where Rocky truly excelled. He competed in track and field, karate, and wrestling. He was captain of the Keio wrestling team and was one of Japan's top wrestlers by age 19. In 1959, he was an alternate on Japan's 1960 Olympics wrestling team. The team toured the United States and Rocky was undefeated in his weight class. America intrigued him and he decided to pursue an athletic scholarship so he could study in the United States.
Several colleges offered Rocky a wrestling scholarship. He lived in New York City while deciding which scholarship to accept. In New York, he lived with Seiji Ozawa, an old family friend from Japan and later conductor and music director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rocky first enrolled at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He quickly transferred to C.W. Post College in Long Island, New York. Rocky soon found himself in trouble for fighting again and was dismissed from Post. He then entered New York City Community College and earned an associate's degree in management in 1963.
Rocky married his wife, Chizuru, in 1964, the year that he first opened a Benihana restaurant in New York. In Benihana's early years, Aoki lived frugally, investing everything he had into his new enterprise. By the early 1970s, the investment paid off and Aoki was a wealthy man. He then began to live like a wealthy man, sometimes investing in opportunities that netted him fiscal losses, but gained him notoriety. He backed a Broadway play starring Joan Rivers that flopped, opened a posh Manhattan club that failed after only one year, and promoted a boxing match in Japan for long-time friend Muhammad Ali that attracted publicity, but little money.
Rocky Aoki's leisure activities took on a note of flamboyance and recklessness. In 1974, he won the world leisure class backgammon championship. He became a champion powerboat racer and was nearly killed in a 1979 accident. He piloted a helium balloon across the Pacific in November 1981. Rocky won the first Milan-Moscow Road Rally in 1987 in his 1959 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.
Later, when asked to reflect on his rapid rise to fortune and fame, Aoki admitted handling the whole situation poorly. Rocky told Jack McCallum, author of Making It in America: The Life and Times of Rocky Aoki Benihana's Pioneer, "When I first started making money, my personal life got poorer . . . . And I kept my family poor. I didn't want to put money into them. I wanted to put it where it would show." In the 1990s, Aoki settled down a bit and has devoted his time and money to more socially responsible ventures, including art and environmental programs.
Long before graduating from college, Rocky Aoki had wanted to open a restaurant. He had saved $10,000 from various part-time jobs to help attain this goal. After graduating from New York City Community College in 1963, Rocky was presented with the opportunity to realize his dream. The owner of an unsuccessful Chinese restaurant offered Rocky his prime midtown Manhattan space, charging only a pittance for rent. Rocky sought the assistance of his wealthy parents. They helped him secure a loan so he could bring their Benihana restaurant to New York.
In May 1964, Rocky Aoki opened the first American Benihana restaurant. Benihana is a Japanese word meaning red flower and saffron. Benihana features teppanyaki-style Japanese cooking. Teppanyaki actually means steel top in Japanese and at Benihana, guests are seated around a steel-topped table that incorporates a grill. The diners' meals are prepared on the grill while the chef's knife-wielding skill provides dinnertime entertainment.
Benihana's business was very slow for the first six months. Then, an enthusiastic review in the New York Herald Tribune brought hungry customers to Aoki's door. Benihana became a most fashionable eatery, with stars like Sean Connery, Lawrence Welk, and Burt Bacharach as regular customers. Rocky opened the second Benihana on May 15, 1966 on Manhattan's East Side. Chicago saw its first Benihana in 1968 and Benihana of San Francisco, the West Coast's first, opened in 1969.
Benihana's popularity soared during the 1970s and 1980s. A publicly traded arm of Benihana-Benihana, Inc. was created in 1987. Aoki's privately held restaurants were now known as Benihana of Tokyo. He began to turn his attention to other business ventures, including Dyna-Tech Nutritionals, Inc., a line of diet and health products. In 1989, Benihana, Inc. was sued by shareholders accusing Rocky Aoki of diverting funds from the publicly owned Benihana to Benihana of Tokyo. The lawsuit was settled in 1991. The early 1990s brought dismal performance to the Benihana chain. In 1995, Aoki sold all 21 U.S. restaurants, except those in Hawaii, to Benihana, Inc. The buyout deal was worth about $6.15 million to Aoki, who remained majority stockholder, chairman, and chief executive of Benihana, Inc.
From 1993 to 1998, Benihana again enjoyed mass popularity and financial success. The company's net income rose 191% and revenues rose nearly 43 percent over those five years. For the fiscal year ending in March, 1998, sales were a record $99.8 million, a one-year increase of 18.2%, while net income rose 20.4% In 1998, the Benihana chain consisted of 49 restaurants-including 9 recently-acquired Samurai and Kyoto restaurants.
Rocky Aoki resigned as Benihana chairman and chief executive on May 19, 1998, amid speculation that his personal investments are under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Aoki released a statement saying that the investigation does not involve Benihana or its stock. He remained majority stockholder of Benihana and continued to be available as a consultant.
Social and Economic Impact
In 1964, nobody knew what a theme restaurant was. But, before Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, there was Rocky Aoki and Benihana. His innovation led to the creation of one of the most successful restaurant chains in history, and brought entertainment and Japanese food to American diners.
Chronology: Hiroaki Aoki
1960: Emigrated to the United States.
1963: Earned Associate's Degree in Management.
1964: Opened first American Benihana restaurant in New York City.
1969: Expanded Benihana business to the West Coast.
1974: Won World Leisure Class Backgammon Championship.
1987: Established Benihana, Inc. a publicly-traded arm of Benihana.
1995: Sold 21 Benihana restaurants to Benihana National Corporation.
1998: Resigned as chairman and CEO of Benihana, Inc.
Rocky Aoki is no stranger to philanthropic causes. He was recognized by the United Nations' Environmental Program Directorate for sponsoring the New York Times environmental supplement, Imagine. He also established a Green Arts Program promoting international art exchanges. In 1993, Aoki sponsored art exhibits in Japan, the United States and England, showcasing the work of environmentally concerned Japanese artists.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Benihana
8685 NW 53rd Terrace
Miami, FL 33166
Business Phone: (305)593-0770
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"Company Capsule, Benihana, Inc." Hoover's Online, 1998. Available from http://www.hoovers.com/.
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Kane, Cheryl. "Rocky's New Gig: Diet Pills." South Florida Business Journal, 21 January 1994.
Walker, Elaine. "Benihana CEO Quits Amid Personal Inquiry." Miami Herald, 20 May 1998.
Zia, Helen and Susan B. Gall, eds. Notable Asian Americans. Detroit: Gale Research