- Benihana Inc. has partnered with live sports and entertainment company AEG, and will open two Benihana locations within Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, and Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, according to a company release emailed Restaurant Dive. The deal marks Benihana's first entry at a professional arena or sports complex.
- The restaurant's 400-square-foot concession at DHSP and its 550-square-foot spot at Sprint Center will include performing chefs, traditional teppanyaki tables and Benihana's signature Hibachi steak, chicken and shrimp. The menu will also include sushi rolls and poke bowls from sister brand RA Sushi.
- "Our partnership with AEG and their strong leadership team helps further strengthen our Benihana and RA Sushi brands not only across sports and live entertainment but also beyond our brick-and-mortar locations," Benihana president and CEO Tom Baldwin said in a statement.
Benihana describes its concession locations as "fast casual" in its press release, but it seems that the formats will function much like its casual dining locations, just on a smaller scale. The fact that chefs will still prepare food items live for diners to watch is impressive, given their comparatively cramped quarters — a traditional Benihana format averages about 8,000 square feet and fits 18 teppan tables.
Though sports arenas may not seem a natural fit for a performance-focused sit-down brand, Benihana's deal with AEG reflects casual dining's pursuit of nontraditional channels in order to compete with faster-moving segments like fast casual. Two years ago, Technomic found that the casual category's footprint shrunk for the first time, decreasing by 1.5%, and the segment has continued to struggle since.
These new locations could bolster Benihana's brand visibility, and also brings the restaurant into new markets. Brands beyond the casual segment are also exploring new formats to drive growth. Auntie Anne's, for example, recently launched 24 food trucks throughout nine cities — including 16 universities. Shake Shack also recently jumped on the food truck trend, deploying mobile units to New Jersey and Atlanta, in addition to opening locations in airports, stadiums and shopping malls.
Peet's Coffee is setting up a mobile coffee shop at 2019's Coachella. More than just a rolling coffee station, this unique "cold-brew bus" complete with a "Tap Room" can be found near the Gobi stage, as well as festival-wide concessions. The brand will also offer charging stations, cooling misters and complimentary Cold Brew samples.
It will be interesting to see if Benihana is able to deliver on diner expectations for fanfare and engaging cooking performances, while also meeting demand for convenience in bustling arenas. If these two locations perform well, it could signal opportunity for casual dining brands of all kinds as restaurants work to revive their store sales.