Cocaine, boats, and backgammon: The insane life of Rocky Aoki, Benihana’s founder

The story behind the iconic teppanyaki restaurant, the bitter battle for its fortune, and Rocky Aoki, the adventure-seeking tycoon who created it all.

Branson, Musk, Trump, Hefner. All playboy entrepreneurs with egos the size of Texas, an instinct to go big, and, of course, an obsession with cold, hard cash.

Cocaine, boats, and backgammon: The insane life of Rocky Aoki, Benihana’s founder

But make no mistake, these men are no trailblazers.

They merely borrowed from one of the original tycoon bad boys; a man one part Chuck Norris legend, and two parts jheri curl. The creator of Benihana: Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki.

Rocky’s iconic chain of theatrical, teppanyaki-style restaurants allowed him to live a lavish life of wild suits, adventure sports, cocaine — and lots of s-e-x.

It also launched a bitter legal battle against 6 of his 7 children, that left them without a dime from the Benihana fortune.

The beginning

Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was born in Tokyo in 1938. According to Rocky, his father, Yunosuke, was a “playboy” with a love for vaudeville and the restaurant biz — an industry he entered right around the time American B-29s bombed Tokyo in 1942, killing close to 100k people.

Legend has it that Yunosuke was walking through the wreckage when he spotted a tiny red flower amidst the soot and destruction — he decided to name his new cafe after the plant: Benihana.

Growing up, Rocky’s wrestling talent earned him a spot on Japan’s 1960 Olympic team and a scholarship to wrestle in the States at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Young Rocky Aoiki shaking an opponent’s hand. He was inducted into the Japanese Wrestling hall of fame in 1995 (via Fortune).

After graduating in 1963 with an associate’s degree in restaurant management, he followed in the footsteps of the family business. That summer, he saved $10k from driving an ice cream truck in Harlem and used it to persuade his father to co-invest in a 4-table Japanese teppanyaki restaurant.

But his showman father balked at the idea, believing spectacle is what puts American butts in the seats.

So, at just 25, Rocky asked his veteran chefs to throw in the bells and whistles — prepare meals over an iron griddle, crack jokes (and eggs) with customers, and set onion volcanoes ablaze.

And in 1964, in Midtown Manhattan, Benihana was born.

No slithery, fishy things

Japanese food was rare in the US at the time, so Rocky Aoki kept his menu simple. He barred any fish items other than shrimp — an early Benihana tagline was “no slithery, fishy things.”

For the first 6 months, Rocky slept on the floor of the restaurant’s bathroom, losing money on the joint.

Then, he got ‘found’: A rave review from the New York Herald Tribune eventually brought in crowds and regulars of the likes of Muhammed Ali, and Sean Connery.

Rocky capitalized on time in the spotlight, opening new restaurants in Chicago, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By 1972, Benihana had nearly 20 restaurants profiting $12m a year.

“Money not everything, just 99%” — Rocky Aoki

Rocky Aoki’s ambition could not be contained by the cooktop. Over the next few decades, he dipped his toe into every market imaginable, from pro sports (attempting to purchase the San Francisco Giants) to Broadway productions.

In 1970, he opened a 6-story “in-crowd” nightclub called Genesis, which became his personal playground to hookup with lots of women, and binge on cocaine and backgammon. He reportedly lost $2m on the venture and closed it a year later.

rocky aoki backgammon
Rocky Aoki playing backgammon, via NY Mag

In 1973, he launched a soft-core porn men’s magazine by the same name (and another great “Benihana-style gimmick: two centerfolds for the price of one!”).

The need for speed

Rocky Aoki took his celebrity by air, land, and sea — slapping Benihana branding across all of his vehicles — literally. All of them; a real Branson before Branson.

An avid speedboat racer, he created the Benihana Grand Prix, which he himself won in 1979, sailing a 38-foot catamaran.

He won the maiden Moscow-to-Milan car rally, raced a stretch Rolls Royce across America, and set a 34-year record in 1981 for piloting the longest hot air balloon flight ever — a 5,208 mile trek across the Pacific — eventually crash-landing in the mountains of Northern California.

The classic Benihana branding, via Fortune

All the while, he was juggling countless female suitors, fathering 7 children with 3 different women throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s (one of the kids was never in the picture).

At one point, the man had 3 kids from 3 different women at the exact same time. But his fast-and-loose lifestyle was catching up with him.

The accident

In late 1979, during a training run to prepare for the next Benihana Grand Prix, Rocky caught air going 80 miles per hour in the San Francisco Bay, destroying his speedboat and damn near himself.

He touched down under the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken arm, a shattered leg, a torn aorta, and his liver split in two.

Rocky awoke from a hospital bed in San Francisco to find his then-wife, Chizuru Aoki, and his mistress, Pamela Hillberger, standing over him (their first time meeting).

In a New York Magazine interview, he recalled, “I’m completely naked, tube in my penis. I see my wife standing over me, on one side. On other side, I see my girlfriend… I say, ‘ohhh… shiiiiit!’”

Chizuru divorced him soon after.

But, business was still booming

By 1983, Rocky Aoki was ready to push the ‘hana to the limit

He divvied his 50 restaurants between the original Benihana of Tokyo, and a new holding company called Benihana Inc. — serving as chairman of both.

Rocky Aoki cracks a smile, via LA Weekly

He opened up restaurants around the world, lifted his ban on “slimy, fishy” menu items, and started a Benihana line of frozen dinners.

Multiple business ventures, a missing spleen, and 2 wives later, the pin-striped-suit-wearing adventurer had grown his restaurant into a $100m global business by 1998.

Then, the go-getter got got

In 1999, Rocky pleaded guilty to insider trading after paying $10k for a tip on a stock called Spectrum Information Technologies.

He managed to escape a prison sentence because of his health problems (he acquired hepatitis c during a blood transfusion after his boating accident), but the real damage was already done.

To avoid revocation of Benihana’s liquor licenses, he was forced to cede his interest in Benihana of Tokyo to a trust managed by three of his children — Kana, Kevin, and Kyle.

It’s always an Ono…

Rocky married his third wife, Benihana consultant and Miss Tokyo runner-up Keiko Ono, in 2002. But things went south when Rocky’s eldest children Kana and Kevin greeted her with a postnuptial agreement.

Keiko refused to sign, so the kids persuaded Rocky to sign an amendment to the Benihana trust, which would make them its sole beneficiaries, leaving Keiko nothing from Benihana or the Aoki family’s assets in the case of Rocky’s death.

But soon after signing, Rocky grew angry at his children, insisting that they tricked him into signing an agreement he didn’t understand. He would change his will 4 times, each revision relinquishing more and more control to Keiko Ono Aoki.

Rocky and Keiko Ono Aoki
Rocky Aoki and his third wife, Keiko Ono Aoki in 2006, via Page Six

Fearing Keiko’s future rule, Benihana Inc’s board (then run by his son, Kevin) issued new stock, reducing the Aoki family stake from 50.9% to 36.5% in 2004.

In retaliation, Rocky sued 4 of his 6 children for attempting to “wrest control” of the companies he founded.

He disinherited the 4 and executed a new will, which left his assets to Keiko and gave her control over the disbursement of 75% of his estate to the remaining 2 Aoki kids after his death: the cake-throwing DJ Steve Aoki, and his youngest daughter, the former face of Versace, Devon Aoki.

The never-ending story

Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki died of liver cancer in 2008, making Keiko the sole trustee. In 2010, she appointed herself CEO of Benihana of Tokyo.

Six years later, the court ruled in the Benihana kids’ favor to regain assets of the $35m trust, but Keiko still owns access to the money until Steve and Devon turn 45 (Devon, turns 45 in 2028).

Rocky Aoki’s children, Devon and Steve Aoki, via Page Six

Until then, the Aokis watch helplessly as Keiko squanders their inheritance on marketing ploys, like the infamous Beni Girls — a jet-setting rap duo dressed in sexy Benihana chef outfits.

In Keiko’s defense, Rocky would’ve loved the Beni Girls.

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