Milwaukee's Benihana is an immigrant success story
The path to the American dream is often through a restaurant kitchen. That is certainly true at the downtown Milwaukee outpost of the Benihana Japanese steakhouse chain.
Rocky Aoki came to this country from Japan at 19 to go to school, and he supported himself selling ice cream out of a truck in Harlem while studying restaurant management at New York City Community College.
Aoki's entrepreneurial flair was evident even then. He built a following in Harlem in the early 1960s by sticking small Japanese cocktail umbrellas into the ice cream he sold.
Within four years of arriving in the U.S., Aoki used $10,000 he had saved to open the first Benihana restaurant -- the name means red flower in Japanese -- in mid-town Manhattan in 1964. It had only four tables, and when business soared after a positive review in the old New York Herald-Tribune, the young restaurateur opened a second location in the Big Apple.
Today there are more than 75 Benihanas in the U.S., stretching from Key West to Anchorage, and an additional eight restaurants operate in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sabah Liddawyeh came to the U.S. as a 16-year-old bride from the old city of Jerusalem, moving to Woodstock, Vt., with her husband. When her marriage did not work out, she found herself going to college in the Washington, D.C. area and working at the Samurai Japanese steakhouse there. Benihana bought the restaurant, and Liddawyeh began a 26-year career with Aoki's company.
The Palestinian woman is the general manager of the Milwaukee Benihana, and with a partner holds the franchise for the restaurant.
"I grew up with the company," she said during a recent chat in her office at the eatery. She was a hostess, server and bartender at the Washington Benihana, and after receiving her business degree from George Mason University, Liddawyeh joined the restaurant's management team.
When a corporately-owned Benihana in Minneapolis developed problems, the company asked her to temporarily go to the Twin Cities to turn the steakhouse around. "I was supposed to be there for three months," she said. "I stayed six years."
In the summer of 2000 Liddawyeh moved to Milwaukee, and she opened the local Benihana in December of that year. A previous Benihana operation here had closed years earlier.
Despite its long hours, restaurant culture is a good fit for her, Liddawyeh says. "I started loving what I do a long time ago. I like dealing with people.
"I am here every single day. I like to make sure everything is OK. I have a lot of knowledge about how to run a Japanese restaurant. Sometimes you will see me behind the bar, mixing drinks."
The restaurant is open seven days a week, and serves lunch Monday through Friday. It was named Benihana Franchise of the Year in 2007.
Benihana made its mark by taking a theatrical approach to preparing food. With flashing knives and a bit of the acrobat, chefs cook customers' orders on a flat steel grill in the center of large dining tables. It's called teppan-yaki or hibachi style cooking.
The chain added sushi to its menu as that became popular in the U.S., and the Milwaukee restaurant has a sushi bar as well as the traditional teppan-yaki tables. From 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, all-you-can-eat sushi is available for $23.95.
The Milwaukee location has first and second floor dining rooms, seating 120 persons upstairs and half that number down.
Liddawyeh enjoys the flow of celebrities through her restaurant. The most recent movie star to make an appearance is Susan Sarandon. The photo is on the wall.
Benihana is particularly popular with NBA players who go to work a few blocks away at the Bradley Center. Their visits are also well documented with pictures.
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