For most of us, Benihana’s is a Japanese restaurant that serves up decent food and has kitschy Japanese decor. It’s a fun venue that can be found throughout America as well as other countries, too. Ho-hum, no big story, right?
Well, not quite.
Benihana’s is not your typical Japanese restaurant, nor was it created by a typical restaurateur. In a lot of ways, the story of Benihana’s founder might just be one of the most fascinating tales chain restaurants ever witnessed. Don’t believe it? Take a look at these insane facts about Hiroaki Aoki, founder of the chain.
- Tokyo-born Hiroaki Aoki kicked off his career in wrestling, not restaurant-making. Yep, he was a professional wrestler known for his playboy behavior. During his athletic time, he qualified for the Summer Olympics, and remained undefeated in America’s flyweight category.
- His first job after moving to New York was working as an ice cream vendor. The soon-to-be restaurateur worked seven days a week while attending community college in order to learn the trade.
- When he opened up his restaurant in New York City, he knew people would be leery of trying Japanese cuisine. To make them more interested in eating there, he invented the concept of hibachi. It worked incredibly well, and Japanese cuisine became hot on the market. (Sorry, it’s not a real Japanese thing!)
- He also Americanized the food. Hibachi shrimp was not a Japanese invention, nor were the ingredients totally traditional. It was actually part of the effort to make Japanese cuisine more Western-friendly.
- The restaurant wouldn’t have succeeded if it wasn’t for a positive review. No one really knew about the place at first. A positive review from the New York Herald Tribune changed the restaurant’s course and got it enough word of mouth to keep it alive.
- Hiroaki Aoiki’s playboy ways didn’t die down during his restaurant years. He once bragged that he had “three different children with three different women” at the same time. He ended up fathering seven kids in total, including EDM legend Steve Aoki and model Devon Aoki.
- While working as Benihana’s founder and CEO, he also “fathered” an adult magazine. The magazine’s name was Genesis, and it specialized in softcore material. After he dropped his position in the magazine, it switched over to hardcore and continued to last for 40 years.
- When Benihana’s really took off, Aoki ended up hanging out with Hollywood elite. During the first couple of years of the Beni-hype, major celebrities lined up to eat at the restaurant. Some of the faces spotted at the New York flagship restaurant included Muhammad Ali and the Beatles.
- As the restaurant kicked off, Aoki started to use Benihana’s as a branding tool. At one point, he raced Benihana-branded boats and cars to add even more rockstar flair to the brand. He also rode a hot air Benihana balloon around the world, hosted a Miss Benihana contest, and took photos of himself in a jacuzzi in a Rolls-Royces.
- He sued his children and disinherited several of them. Steve Aoki was allegedly disinherited because he chose to pursue his EDM career. Thankfully, he sued the estate and was able to get some inheritance despite the rivalry.