Many of you will recall that fateful autumn day when you were introduced to TOM class through BENIHANA OF TOKYO. The case captured my imagination not just because Rocky Aoki presented a fascinating protagonist – dynamic Olympic wrestler turned restaurant entrepreneur – but also because in early years daredevil Rocky was a buddy of my father. Acrobatic knife performances were just one of Rocky’s interests. He loved speed in all sorts of contexts – racing motorcycles, catamarans, and hot-air balloons. So, why not speedy-eating?
One warm evening back home in Hawaii for Spring Break – ravenously hungry after a day of running and swimming at the beach – this author thought she would test out the speed of the world-famous Benihana operating system. Benihana Honolulu sits in close proximity to Waikiki Beach in a 200-year-old farmhouse that was transported to this spot from Osaka, Japan. Out in front, a watermill churns away, humming like a beacon of efficiency. Inside, cheery photographs of Rocky with the likes of Tiger Woods, Jackie Chan, Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, Senator Ted Kennedy, Elvis, and O.J. Simpson checker the walls.
JUST HOW SPEEDY?
I find myself wondering: Can diners, celebrity or otherwise, really make it through this system in under an hour? Would an order of plum wine or a piña colada – like an errant branch in the watermill – derail its rapid pace? With my older sister in tow, I stroll into Benihana, Hilton Hawaiian Village. The place is packed with what appear to be meat-craving honeymooners. Is this really an obvious target market? Back to the point: my TTT (TOM Time Test).
7:07 p.m. – The hostess arrives at our table and takes drink and entrée orders. I decide on Rocky’s Choice, a combination entrée of hibachi steak and chicken.
7:10 – Pineapple-donning piña coladas, red wine, and plum wine arrive at our table. Onion soup and salad follow close on their heels.
7:12 – The chef wheels his cart onto the scene; an impressive meat knife is casually slung by a sturdy, black belt around his waist.
7:13 – He proceeds to “warm-up” – nimbly tossing his grilling utensils around with a mind-boggling velocity.
7:13.5 – The chef pokes around his cart, and produces a shiny onion (like a magician pulling a white rabbit from a hat!). The onion is diced and stacked – forming the slopes of a stratovolcano. For geology buffs, think Mount St. Helens or Mt. Fuji. With a dramatic flourish, the onion is doused with liquid and lit.
7:14 – The onion volcano erupts with a burst of heat. Orange flames catapult three feet into the air. We applaud appreciatively at the pyrotechnics while our chef moves on to dicing asparagus and shiitake mushrooms.
7:15 – The asparagus and mushroom appetizers are served.
7:19 – My entrée is delivered directly from the grill onto my plate. (Our chef has the added handicap of having to deal with my shrimp allergy, juggling items around on the grill so that the shrimp is not introduced to the steak and chicken.)
7:22 – Seafood entrées (lobster tail, shrimp, king crab legs, and scallops) are delivered to diners’ plates. With a quick swoop, a single shrimp tail is flipped onto the brim of the chef’s tall, red hat: “A souvenir for me,” he tells us with a conspiratorial wink.
7:23 – Fried rice, scrambled with one fresh egg, is slingshotted onto our plates.
7:31 – Our chef cleans the grill, bids us sayonara, and rolls his cart off.
7:41 – The busboy comes to clear our plates.
7:44 – All diners at our table have finished their meals with one exception – the guy working his way through the massive king crab legs.
7:45 – Dessert sherbets, which have been delivered by the hostess, are being consumed on the far end of the table. The rest of us are feeling very much like Thanksgiving turkeys – stuffed. (Tangential note: Speaking of turkey, whatever happened to the HBS turkey?!)
7:47 – The bill has been split by party, and paid. We feel the need to go on an evening jaunt to prevent the onset of food coma. We waltz out of the restaurant into the balmy night breeze.
TPT (Throughput Time):
100% (Patrons sampled who successfully moved through production line from “Hungry” to “Fending off Food Coma”).
Consumption of king crab legs.
“Rocky’s Choice”: Hibachi Steak and Chicken ($31.50).
2005 Kalia Road; Honolulu, Hawaii 96815.
Kay Fukunaga was born and raised on three islands in Hawaii: Oahu, Molokai, and Maui. She attended Dartmouth College and worked as an economist in New York prior to HBS.