A story about Rocky & the Benihana chain

June 15, 2018

[Note: This post was originally written November 1st, 2006 for a blog I used to write focused on Japanese sake. I’m reposting it here because I thought it was worth copying to my personal blog]

My wife and I had the opportunity to go to Tokyo with Rocky Aoki and his wife Keiko.  Rocky as some of you may know is the founder of the famous Benihana of Tokyo chains.  Benihana is so successful and so well run, it is one of two Business Administration case studies that almost every MBA student studies.  (The other being Fred Smith & the story of the rise of FedEx.) 

To give you an idea of what makes Benihana of Tokyo so unique, it is considered to be the most efficient restaurant chain in the US, with higher “revenues per square foot” than anywhere else.  This is because Benihana doesn’t have kitchen – meals are prepared in front of customers. 

In addition, everything about the restaurant is designed to get you in, get you served, and get you out.  For example, serving areas are in broad horseshoe shapes – this prevents too much conversational intimacy resulting in prolonged stays by starry-eyed couples or business partners.  You’ll never find people lingering around after dinner at the tables much.  If anything, there is a bar at the restaurant that serves this purpose better – with much higher profit margins as well.  Even things as simple as the ice cream are designed to minimize people’s stay.  The “green tea ice cream” melts faster than most ice creams to encourage faster consumption.

A word about Keiko, Rocky’s wife
Now for the record, I got the chance to spend a good week with Keiko Ono, Rocky’s wife while on the tour to Japan, and watch her ‘operate’.  Being that very few of the folks reading this will ever get this opportunity, I will sum up my opinion about Keiko in just a few words:  Keiko is a self-made success, a shrewd business woman, a lady that really does love Rocky, and a symbol of the evolution of the modern Japanese woman. 

And even as fairly powerful woman, she’s still very nice and very level-headed.

Keiko was Miss Tokyo some 30 years ago which was amazing in it of itself, however she wasn’t a beauty pageant bubblehead.  To the contrary she was involved with various import businesses, not the least of which was her notoriety for being the first person to import and market the push-up bra to women in Japan.  Even more impressively, she founded and built up her own business consultancy, which specialized in helping to optimize and tune operational process.

Huh?  Why’d you write all of that?
I’m wrote the last few paragraphs because there was an article about Rocky Aoki in New York Magazine recently.  A fellow co-worker emailed it to me and I started reading the article and before I read the first 3 paragraphs, the article started talking about the “family war” going on between his children and himself, in great deal, centered around his interaction with Keiko.

The phrase that caught my eye was, “”My daughter Grace is telling me, Daddy, your wife is going to poison you to death. Be careful what you eat…. basically, they think my wife is, like, gold digger.”

WOW.  You see, Rocky is suing a good part of his family – 3 kids including the aforementioned Grace – for trying to gain control over the Benihana empire he created.  And part of their strategy is slandering Keiko by saying she’s taking advantage of an older man and only after her money…

Keiko is VERY COOL.
…which is where I call, ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT.  Keiko is a really cool lady.  Keiko was doing just fine before she met Rocky.  In fact, the way Rocky tells it, if anything, he needed her initially more than she needed him.  Recall that I said that Keiko’s company was basically a right-sizing shop that optimized business process.  Rocky got together with Keiko to help FIX Benihana – which she did.  Only later did they get married.

Rocky’s in his sunset years – let’s not kid ourselves.  He’s 68 and he tends to forget things.  He’s not at all the active guy he used to be – speedboating, hot air ballooning, race car driving, living the high life… all of that.  After recovering from a near fatal accident in a speedboat, and coming down with a illness contracted through a surgical blood transfusion that laid him up in the hospital for months, he’s not quite been the same active guy.  He told me he used to partake in all sort of activities that would make headlines or at least the Style section of the newspaper – anything for a photo stunt, anything to create publicity for his business.

Today, he’s basically a well-dressed, soft-spoken, kind-hearted man with a very specific vision.  During a dinner, he explained that his goal for the rest of the time he has is to help invigorate foreign interest in Japanese culture, language, and tourism.  He believes the Japanese have a lot to offer and by working through the government run Japanese Tourism group “Yokoso Japan!”, he thinks that he can help build bridges between the Japanese and other countries – not the least of which is America.


Keiko Ono & Rocky Aoki
(Photo by Kyoko Hamada, Rocky’s former personal assistant)

My quick story about Rocky
I’d heard about Rocky’s infamous kind heart before in other publications.  Others I’d talked to on the tour had mentioned it, but never actually gone into detail about why they believed it so.  I, for one, am one of those people that likes concrete definitions… quantification… precision…. and when someone makes a claim like “Rocky has a good heart”, I’d kind of like to understand the dimensions of the claim through simple examples.  For instance, is he the kind of guy that gives a dollar to the pan handler on the street?  Does he lend his image to good causes?  Does he sponsor and actively participate in children’s charities?  Well, I got my example first hand.  It took place at a dinner that was quite confusing in nature so I’ll try to shave off the details.  The following might be long but believe me – it’s the Cliff Notes version.

Shanghai-ed into dinner
During our tour of Tokyo, Rocky & Keiko through their politeness, got sort of suckered by a Japanese businessman into going to a dinner at a private restaurant in Roppongi that, little did we know, was to be a business proposal meeting.  In order to make the dinner happen, the businessman sponsoring the dinner invited everyone on the tour – all 24 of us. 

My wife and I, for whatever reason, was one of the first people in the restaurant.  While no one was present, the businessman insisted that my wife & I take the worst seat in the restaurant – after all, who was I next to business moguls like Rocky and others on the tour.  Now, I’ve been at my share of dinners where seating had been orchestrated for elbow rubbing purposes, so I said to myself, “Whatever” and let it go.

Now keep in mind that no one knew – including Rocky & Keiko – that this whole dinner was just a giant pitch for a business idea.  I thought the whole thing was just to do some serious ass-kissing. 

Rocky enters the picture
Rocky entered the restaurant and was immediately told by said businessman to sit at the center of the table.  Since I was the only other person in the restaurant, and had been shuffled off into the back corner, Rocky told my wife and I to come have a seat with him. 

The businessman turned red.  He immediately and sternly intervened and told me quite gruffly to go back to my table in the corner.  Rocky then quietly said, “No, no… come.  Sit with me.”  The businessman glared at me.  Uh….awkward?

I locked stares with Rocky and gestured with my eyes toward the businessman, shrugged, and glumly headed back to my table.  Satisfied with where I was sitting, the businessman backed off and went back toward the door.

Until Rocky got up from the center seat and sat down with me and my wife to start talking.  We chatted about Japan and what I thought of the trip so far, and my true interest in sake.  You see, of the people on the trip which was supposed to be oriented around sake appreciation, I think I was one of only a couple folks that actively was interested in sake production and sake consumption.  We talked about good sake and American tastes and bantered about quite normal things.

Oops… there goes the playbook!
Now what I didn’t know was that this completely screwed up the businessman’s plans.  He was livid that Rocky had chosen to sit down next to me… but what could he do?  You don’t tell the “man” that he sat in the wrong chair – especially the man that you’re trying to court for a business opportunity. (we didn’t know this at the time but we figured out everything that had been going on later that night)  He even went so far to try to get Rocky to move but Rocky said “No”.

Keiko came in at this point and Rocky whispered a few things in Japanese to Keiko and continued to talk to my wife and I this time about Japanese American tourism – having more “sansei” and “yonsei” revisit their heritage. (3rd & 4th generation Japanese American citizens)  People began filing in and I didn’t think much about what was going on at the time except that Rocky seemed very calm.

Keiko kicks ass
At this point, Keiko stood up and invited all 4 of us (there was a Yokoso Japan representative with us at the table, a very nice elderly man who had before he retired, been a Japanese Marketing executive) to the main table.  The businessman that had orchestrated the event said loudly, “Madam Keiko, we do not have the room” in reference to the places at the table, to which Keiko said, “Yes we do” and proceeded to instruct people to move more chairs to the main table and “squish” everyone in. 

Next thing we know, we’re sitting at the main table with everyone else in the group.  Now, during dinner, we had a very uncomfortable and awkward business proposal made between the businessman and Rocky & Keiko who graciously took the materials and made no commitment.  And that was the end of dinner. 

We couldn’t get out fast enough.

Revelations of that night
Later that night it dawned on us, after receiving some key information from various folks close to Rocky, that a giant mindgame was being played at dinner.  We’d just witnessed not only a shotgun business proposal by a rather rude businessman that Rocky & Keiko had no relationship whatsoever to, but Rocky had intentionally moved to our table to irritate the businessman.

Rocky Aoki is no dope, folks, and I’m here as a 1st hand witness to this.  You see, Japanese culture is one of subtleties.  For example, most people know that “yes” in Japanese is pronounced “Hai” (HA-ee), which is a positive affirmation.  Few people however know that “no” in Japanese is pronounced “Ie” (EE-yay), because saying “no” is considered rude – it’s just not done.  Instead, when you don’t want something or your response is negative, you say the Japanese equivalent of “Umm… it’s a little…” or “Uh… I’m uncertain…”  Get it?

Rocky & every man’s equality
In the case of the dinner, Rocky, in an effort to ensure everyone was treated with respect and equality, (unlike the businessman that had orchestrated this farce) decided that if I couldn’t come to him, instead of making a scene, he’d come to me and he’d make sure that the guy knew who was boss that night.

Meanwhile, he worked with Keiko to ensure that everyone would be treated nicely and not talked down to as the businessman had to me.  Keiko in turn laid down the law and served notice on everyone that she was orchestrating where people would be sitting.

Every person would be treated equally as Rocky & Keiko’s guests.  No one would have status above another no matter how rich or how successful.

The New York Magazine Article
Now isn’t that cool?  I mean in this day and age, where folks snub others for the social circles they consort in, Rocky & Keiko are different. 

I wrote the above to give people and idea of what what they’re like – an example if you will.  And it’s not the only one I might add.  It’s just the one that I remember most vividly because of the outrageous circumstances we were all in.

So when you read the article below, entitled, “Rocky’s Family Horror Show:  Rocky Aoki and his feuding heirs are bringing out the knives, to slice and dice his Benihana fortune.”  I hope you’ll get an idea of what the two of them are really like.  While the article describes his past as “flashy”, you have to understand that these were strategic moves to draw attention to his business – not unlike what Richard Branson does for Virgin Enterprises.  As for his past indiscretions, all I can vouch for is what he’s like now. 

And I really like the guy.

The article is here:  http://nymag.com/guides/money/2006/23465/