The surname Aoki will be instantly recognised by different generations through the Benihana restaurant brand and now dance music. Steve Aoki is one of the world’s best known DJs playing sold out concerts worldwide. But in the restaurant industry his father Rocky Aoki is known as a pioneer and ground breaking restaurant-publicist. Aoki Snr built a single New York restaurant into a worldwide brand, but just how did he become so successful?
Rocky Aoki arrived in New York from Japan in 1960 with little money but a determination to succeed. After working several jobs and starting an Ice Cream van business he saved $10,000 to open a four-table restaurant on West 56th Street. He named the restaurant Benihana, which means “red flower”, the same name as his parent’s coffee shop (although there are many different variations on where the name originates from in true restaurant pr chutzpah).
Although not a trained chef, Aoki designed the restaurants to resemble a traditional Japanese farmhouse, combined with traditional Japanese cooking and a theatrical flair. Customers were seated around a steel-top grill, a style of cooking called teppanyaki. He also trained his chefs to throw their knives in the air, add seasonings with a flourish and toss shrimp onto their hats. Aoki took a traditional style of cooking and added a more modern presentation.
However for six months the restaurant was not popular, with only a handful of customers every night and rapidly losing money. Aoki became concerned that people didn’t understand the restaurant’s layout and modern interpretation of Japanese food. Similarly to Wagamama there was space for twenty-eight customers around four large tables. Aoki began to lose faith in his idea and became concerned New Yorkers were actually uncomfortable with the seating arrangements sitting alongside strangers.
However a positive newspaper review by Clementine Paddleford, restaurant critic of the New York Herald-Tribune proved to be a watershed moment. New Yorkers soon flocked to the new ‘hot restaurant’ to try the food, four-table Benihana had queues outside every night and was now forced to turn customers away. Customers were not concerned about sitting with strangers it seemed when a desire was placed to try the food. Six months after the newspaper review another Benihana was opened. Everyone in New York, including John Lennon and Muhammad Ali, wanted to sit around one of Benihana’s teppanyaki tables. Aoki had slept on the floor and worked day and night trying to make it a success. But the impact of a single newspaper review made Aoki realise the power of publicity. Benihana allocated 10% of its sales into a PR and marketing budget.
Becoming one of the first restaurants in New York to appoint a PR advisor Aoki set about a series of publicity events for himself and his restaurants. Aoki performed many publicity stunts personally and set a world record when he became the first person to cross the Pacific in a hot-air balloon (stamped with the Benihana logo). Aoki’s PR advisors continued to innovate and find ways to get into newspapers and grab publicity. In 1984, mayors in 49 Benihana based cities across America planted trees and held festivities to celebrate the restaurant chain and celebrate ‘Benihana day’.
At the time of Aoki’s death in 2008 there were more than 100 Benihana restaurants worldwide. The first modern-day restaurant chain built on publicity.