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Benihana widow says hedge fund pushing her to sell

Iconic Japanese-American restaurant chain Benihana is embroiled in a bitter legal battle that has an heir to the family business accusing a multi-billion dollar hedge fund of trying to force her to sell.

In a lawsuit filed last month, Keiko Aoki, CEO of Benihana of Tokyo, said New York investment firm Angelo Gordon, which boasts $25 billion in assets, is messing with her business in a ploy to control the restaurant empire.

Keiko Aoki (R) with her late husband and founder of Benihana, Rocky H. Aoki. (L).
Ray Tamarra | Getty Images
Keiko Aoki (R) with her late husband and founder of Benihana, Rocky H. Aoki. (L).

Aoki, the third wife of Benihana's founder Rocky Aoki, controls what remains of the family's slice of Benihana through an entity called Benihana of Tokyo, or BOT, which runs 20 Benihana restaurants in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Angelo Gordon, by contrast, owns the core Benihana brand after buying the publicly traded arm in 2012 and taking it private. That unit, known as Benihana Inc., owns 64 Benihana restaurants in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean, as well the Haru-branded sushi restaurants.

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The Japanese eatery, known for its theatrical chefs, was divided into two parts in the early 1980s when the piece of the company now owned by Angelo Gordon first went public.

According to Aoki's lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, the $25 billion investment firm has been after the family's assets ever since it entered the picture in 2012.

But Aoki has steadfastly refused to sell, she said.

To force her hand, the company has waged a war of litigation, including an ugly battle over the popular Benihana in Honolulu, Hawaii, which was established in 1971, the lawsuit alleged.

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"In a concerted effort to force an unwilling BOT to sell, the defendants have engaged in a strategy aimed at inflicting damage" to BOT's reputation and finances, the lawsuit alleged.

Alan Fein, a lawyer for the defendants, declined to comment on the case — or Angelo Gordon's acquisition plans.

But Fein's Feb. 4th motion to dismiss the case points out that 80 percent of the eight legal actions between the parties in recent years have been initiated by BOT, not Benihana Inc. or Angelo Gordon. They ask to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds.

Aoki's lawyer, Joe Manson, agreed that BOT has filed more lawsuits, but said it was always "in response to actions taken by them that would have damaged BOT," such as challenges to the way Aoki was running the Benihana in Honolulu.

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That fight centers on whether Aoki violated her licensing agreement with the larger company by selling hamburgers without permission, as well as her decision to use hip-hop dancers, dubbed the "Beni Girls," to promote the eatery.

Aoki's lawsuit asks that Angelo Gordon pay BOT damages to be determined at trial, as well as any money "derived from their unlawful, infringing and misleading activities."

Any sale could also affect heirs to the BOT estate, including Rocky Aoki's kids, Steve Aoki, a famous DJ, and Devon Aoki, a model and actress. They have also been at odds with Aoki, their stepmother, over the family's assets since their dad died in 2008.