Benihana's returns to the East Valley after more than 20 years - East Valley Tribune: Business

Benihana's returns to the East Valley after more than 20 years

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Posted: Friday, November 28, 2003 10:30 pm | Updated: 1:09 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The long-awaited return of Japanese teppanyaki restaurant Benihana to Scottsdale is just days away.

Benihana chefs could start grilling and juggling shrimp and steak in a prominent spot at the Scottsdale Promenade shopping center, Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, as early as Sunday if all the staff training is completed, said Hideko Edwards, assistant general manager for the chain. Edwards and Scottsdale restaurant manager Ajay Kapur are training about 100 in the eatery’s traditions, she said.

It’s been more than two decades since the internationally known restaurant left its downtown Scottsdale site — and Arizona. The local competitive environment has changed significantly since, and Benihana will go head-to-head with several popular Asian dining spots in their own back yard.

P.F. Chang’s, which has grown from its own downtown Scottsdale beginnings into a nationwide chain of nearly 100 restaurants, has a prime spot just a mile south of Promenade.

Bamboo Club, another Scottsdale-born chain, opened its latest eatery at Desert Ridge Marketplace, a few miles northwest.

Scottsdale favorite Flo’s Asian Cuisine has a restaurant just a few hundred yards away at the Promenade.

Benihana even swallowed up some of the competition. While scouting out a place to stage Benihana’s return appearance in Arizona, company president Joel Schwartz was so impressed by Scottsdale-based Ra Sushi Bar, he came back later and bought the fledgling chain. That was in November 2002. At the time, Schwartz said he didn’t see the two chains waging a tug-of-war over diners.

“Benihana is a more family oriented restaurant,” he said. “Ra is more for young people who want to have a drink and some sushi.”

In fact, Ra and Benihana are a perfect fit, Schwartz said, since the company had already added sushi to most of its Benihanas.

Margaret Lloyd, vice president of The Pederson Cos., which developed, owns and manages Promenade, said she didn’t see Benihana wrestling with most of the local chains.

“Scottsdale in general is very competitive in the food arena,” Lloyd said. “All the good, quality restaurants want and need to be in Scottsdale. But what Benihana brings is also an entertainment component.”

Lloyd said only the exotically decorated Sapporo, which features eight teppanyaki tables plus a sushi bar and a Pacific Rim restaurant area, offers a similar experience in the local market. Sapporo, also owned by a Scottsdale-based restaurant group, is just a couple of miles south of Promenade.

“I see the only competition as one,” Lloyd said. “And I think with Benihana’s name, reputation, quality and consistency they will clearly be able to compete with Sapporo.”

The Scottsdale Benihana houses 20 teppan tables, a sushi bar and a regular bar. It will feature its own upscale elements, including plenty of Japanese art work and a huge washi screen. Washi is rice paper, Edwards said. The screen is designed to resemble the ocean floor, she said.

But the main lure for Benihana customers is the show that the chefs put on while preparing the food. Eight diners sit around a teppan table — a steel grill — where the chef slices, dices and flips the food into the air in the process of cooking it.

“It’s an experience at every table,” Edwards said.

Benihana, which means “red flower,” was named for a bloom common in the Tokyo neighborhood where chain founder Hiroaki Aoki’s parents owned a coffee shop.

Aoki opened the first Benihana in New York in 1964. Today the chain has grown to 56 company owned restaurants and 21 franchised versions. The Miami, Fla.-based company, now publicly owned, also owns five Ra Sushi Bars, and two other New York-based concepts — Haru, with five locations, and Doraku, with one.

Benihana’s goal is to have at least one restaurant in every state, Edwards said. The company is eyeing more Valley sites, she said, but has not settled on any specific location.

Edwards said the company also has big expansion plans for Ra, but none of the pending sites are in the Valley.

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