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#TheUnknownHustle: Hiroaki Aoki

rocky Aoki kitchen mobile
Rocky Aoki with his cars / Jim Hughes/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Before his chefs were flipping shrimp tails, Hiroaki Aoki, the founder of Benihana, was pulling the levers inside a Mister Softee truck. Aoki, who had moved to the US in 1959 on a wrestling scholarship, found success by parking his truck where other drivers wouldn't operate in the early '60s: Harlem. His truck played Japanese music and his soft-serve came with a small paper umbrella. Soon, the "Japanese ice cream guy" had lines down the street.

In 1964, after saving $10,000, Aoki and his father, a former tap dancer, opened the first Benihana in a former Chinese food restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. The space had just 4 tables, no liquor license, and, at first, painfully few customers. Aoki's mother and three brothers eventually flew from Japan to work as waiters to help the flailing restaurant save money on staff. But after a rave review in the Herald Tribune, Benihanna's showy chefs and American-friendly menu turned into an absolute sensation.

 

By 1979, he was a multimillionaire with a 78-location empire. He went on to launch a number of other business including a nightclub, a line of diet pills called Rocky Aoki’s Ultra Herbal Power Slim and, uh, a porn magazine. He also held the record for longest hot air balloon flight, was a backgammon world champion, hunted for sunken treasure via submarine and was almost killed in a boating accident. Oh, and he couldn't cook.

His business accomplishments are sometimes overshadowed by his WILD private life, but you have to respect the business prowess of a man who hustled in an ice cream truck to build one of the most famous restaurant chains of all time.

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