watched in astonishment as their selection was sliced, diced and tossed into the air before making its way, as often as not, airborne to their plates. The real trick to the performance was the chef's ability to deliver everything to the customer's plate at the same time.
Business didnít take off until legendary food-critic Clementine Paddleford of the New York Herald-Tribune favorably reviewed the restaurant.
The success of the first Benihana led to another restaurant in Manhattan (1966) followed by Chicago (1968), and then a franchise in Las Vegas (1969). In 1983, with 11 restaurants, Benihana, Inc., became a public company. By early 2002, the brand had approximately 60 teppan-yaki restaurants open or under development, including restaurants in Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Peru, Trinidad and Venezuela.
Over time, the Benihana brand has acted as a guide to introduce non-Japanese diners to new concepts in eating, but its mission hasnít always been successful.
In 1994, Benihana began opening stand-alone sushi bars under the name Sushi Doraku by Benihana, where "doraku" translates to "the joy of." At each Sushi Doraku restaurant, guests had the option of seating themselves around a revolving (kaiten) sushi bar, or being served at a private table or booth. Over 20 kinds of sushi traveled on separate plates along a conveyor belt that passed in front of the customers, while they selected the items they wanted.
The kaiten approach, according to Benihana's vice president of marketing Kevin Aoki (son of Rocky), was meant to emphasize inexpensive food and fast service. But the concept didnít translate to US diners, and in 2002, the company only had two Sushi Doraku restaurants in operation with no plans for expansion.
The loss of the Sushi Doraku branches keeps with Benihanaís flexible approach to meeting the tastes of its audience.
Prior to 1980, Benihana was known as a Japanese steakhouse, but by the 1980s it was positioned as a steak, seafood and chicken restaurant. "And today," Kevin Aoki said, "Benihana is known for steak, chicken and sushi." Although the sushi and teppan-yaki areas of each restaurant are clearly separate, Aoki said that the two operations actually complement each other. While teppan-yaki cuisine primarily attracts young families, sushi patrons tend to be single, urban professionals.
In 1999, Benihana purchased three more sushi restaurants, which it operated under the name Haru. By 2002 there were five Haru restaurants, all in New York City. Unlike Sushi Doraku, Haru does approximately half of its business in delivery and takeout.
By 1998, however, Aoki found himself nearly iron-grilled and broiled when he was charged with insider trading. Pleading guilty, the restauranteur paid a half million dollars in fines and received three months probation. He also resigned as Benihana's chairman and CEO that year, but remained with the company as a consultant.
After 36 years of operation, Benihana is still growing despite the loss of Aoki senior. The brand, whose competitors in the casual dining market include Chart House and Outback restaurants, is set to live up to its name, which means "red flower" in Japanese, and was borrowed by Rocky Aoki from his parentsí restaurant in Tokyo. The red flower, which grew in burned-out, vacant lots of post-War Tokyo, was a symbol of the indomitable Japanese spirit.
In 2001 CEO Joel Schwartz told the Wall Street Transcript, "We are positioning Benihana, in the next five years or so to continue its growth, to stay the leader in the Asian restaurant segment and to continue to be identified as the quality restaurant that we are." He added, "Our employees, our chefs, our servers, all are inculcated with the philosophy that they must consider the customer first. I believe that's what has put us ahead of the industry. We keep the loyal customers we have by knowing the customer comes first. Everything is geared with that in mind. Also, our prices have remained moderate."