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Benihana Founder Rocky Aoki: From Wrestler To Restaurateur

Culture | November 29, 2016

Source: rockyhaoki.com

Benihana founder Rocky Aoki was a larger-than-life character who built an immense restaurant empire and lived an even more interesting life. Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki came to the U.S. as a champion wrestler, and applied a relentless work ethic to the restaurant business, all the while learning the value of self-promotion and publicity. The Benihana founder's other personae included magazine publisher, speedboat racer, backgammon champion, ice-cream vendor, and nightclub owner. When the Benihana craze flared up in the 1960s, its trend-setting clientele included celebrities like the Beatles and Muhammad Ali.

It all started with a young boy and his dream. Hiroaki Aoki spent many of his days at his dad's coffee shop in Tokyo, Japan. Hiroaki's father, Yunosuke, strived to set his coffee shop apart from the others through doing simple things like traveling many miles to purchase real sugar (something that other coffee shops rarely served). Witnessing his father's dedication to the restaurant, which was first called Ellington and later Benihana, gave young Hiroaki ideas that would set him up for great success in the decades to come. 

Rocky Aoki Was a Champion Wrestler

As a young man, Aoki was interested in music and excelled at several sports. He played bass guitar in a group called Rowdy Sounds, but by his own admission wasn't good at keeping the beat. So he decided to focus on athletics -- at Keio University, in Tokyo, he participated in track and karate, and was captain of the wrestling team. Aoki made the Japanese Olympic wrestling team as an alternate. 

Although he did not participate in the 1960 games in Rome, he traveled with the team to the United States, where he wrestled exhibition matches in the 112-pound weight class, and was undefeated. His skill attracted the attention of American colleges, several of which offered him scholarships. He attended Springfield College, in Massachusetts, then transferred to CW Post College, on Long Island in New York. He was asked to leave that school due to fighting.

He Sold Ice Cream In Harlem

A Mister Softee. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aoki moved in to New York City, and this is where his life story goes from an exceptional one to truly amazing. Aoki enrolled at New York City Community College and pursued a degree in restaurant management.

Concurrently, he continued to wrestle. He would win World AAU wrestling titles in the flyweight division in 1960, '61, and '62.

To make money, he drove a Mister Softee ice cream truck, reportedly seven days a week -- in Harlem. "Everybody afraid to sell ice cream in Harlem then," he recalled to New York magazine. To ward off potential mischief, he taped an article about his wrestling prowess to the side of his truck. He also peddled a version of Mister Softee that wasn't quite by-the-book: He blasted Japanese music from his truck (instead of the usual plinky-plunky Mister Softee theme) and served his ice cream with miniature paper umbrellas.

By the time Aoki received his management degree in 1963, he had saved $10,000 from the Mister Softee job and others.

Benihana Wasn't An Immediate Success

Benihana on 56th Street in New York City. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, Aoki used his $10,000, and borrowed some additional funding, to open the first Benihana restaurant on 56th St. in Manhattan. The restaurant had four tables, upon which wisecracking chefs prepared Japanese dishes with theatrical flair. It's a style of cuisine called teppanyaki that had been popular in postwar Japan, but unknown in the United States. It wasn't an instant success, but a positive review in the New York Herald Tribune attracted attention. 

Rocky Attracted Celebrities, And Became One

Rocky Aoki with Muhammad Ali. Source: rockyhaoki.com

Positive reviews meant customers -- and with buzz came celebrities. With the Beatles, Sean Connery, Muhammad Ali and Lawrence Welk known to eat at Benihana's, demand for this unusual and fun cuisine grew. Aoki learned the value of publicity over, more or less, everything else. Media coverage became as important to his empire as the actual food served in Benihana retaurants.

In 1966, Aoki opened another Manhattan Benihana, and in 1968 and '69 he opened locations in Chicago and San Francisco.

Rocky Aoki Founded His Own Men's Magazine

The first issue of Genesis magazine. Source: ebay.com

In 1973, Aoki launched Genesis, a men's magazine that boasted not one but two centerfolds each issue. Aoki eventually sold the publication (which still exists today), but it wasn't the only venture that put Aoki in the class of world-beating celebrity entrepreneurs. Aoki's persona includes elements of Hugh Hefner, Richard Branson, Donald Trump, and other larger-than-life figures. 

A Relentless Self-Promoter

Left: Aoki with Howard Cosell. Right: with a hot-air balloon. Sources: Benihana Thailand; rockyhaoki.com

Aoki also owned the Genesis Club in New York City, which became his own personal nightlife playground. To keep things interesting, he applied himself to various other outlandish (and empire-promoting) pursuits, becoming a world backgammon champion, record holder for the longest balloon flight, and deep-sea treasure hunter.

Rocky Aoki Was Nearly Killed Racing His Speedboat

Rocky Aoki piloting the Benihana racing team's speedboat in 1979. Source: rockyhaoki.com

Aoki became a speedboat fanatic, and sought to compete in high-speed offshore powerboat races. Of course, it wasn't pure love of sport that drove Aoki, there was a publicity-stunt element to it -- his speedboat was emblazoned with Benihana branding, and Benihana sponsored racing events as well. On September 14, 1979, during the Benihana Grand Prix race held in San Francisco Bay, Aoki's boat disintegrated while going 80 miles per hour. Aoki was airlifted to a hospital, and spent three days unconscious. His injuries included a broken arm, a shattered leg, a torn aorta, and a badly damaged liver. For ten hours, doctors labored over a coronary bypass, and while they were at it, removed his spleen and gall bladder.

When Aoki woke up, a scene more terrifying than his injuries awaited. Standing at either side of his hospital bed were his wife, with whom he had three children, and the mistress with whom he had a child the wife didn't know about. “I decide I want to die,” he told New York magazine. “I want to rip out all the tubes—the IV, everything—but I can’t, because my broken bones.” 

Aoki's wife, Chizuru Kobayashi, said she could forgive his having a girlfriend, saying it was a "Japanese tradition." She could not forgive him fathering children with the girlfriend. In 1981, they were divorced, and Rocky married the girlfriend, Pamela Hillberger, before the year was out.

We Won't See A Restaurateur Like Rocky Aoki Again

1967 advertisement for Benihana. Source: rockymaoki.com

Hiroaki Aoki passed away at the age of 69 in 2008, leaving a legacy as one of the most interesting restaurateurs New York City -- and the world -- had ever known. His children include Steve Aoki, a world-renowned DJ and producer, and model-actress Devon Aoki.

Tags: Asian Americans | Benihana | Hiroaki Aoki | Inventions | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Wrestling In The 1960s

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Brianna Quezada

Writer

Historically Brianna has had a passion for all things social media and pop culture, no matter the decade. In the summer she can be found at the beach and in the winter, the happiest place on earth. The combination of these two places reflect her mellow-jubilant spirit. Can you dig it?