January 18, 2006 - More than two months ago, one of the Northwest's busiest restaurants closed and was reopened as part of the country's largest chain of Japanese-themed restaurants.

Benihana took ownership Nov. 8 of Sakura, 6091 N. Oracle Road, for an undisclosed amount.

Roger Biede, manager, said he did not know why Sakura owner K.C. An decided to sell the restaurant. "It was his choice," he said.

An could not be reached for comment.

It has been a slow start for the frequently busy Benihana, as customers are getting used to a new menu, new methods of cooking and a new name, Biede said.

"Sakura was a staple," Biede said. "Mr. An was a celebrity."

Benihana has a celebrity following in the culinary world as well. Rocky H. Aoki, a member of the 1960 Japanese Olympic Wrestling team, originally founded it. He opened his first restaurant in New York City in 1964. Since then, Benihana has grown to 73 restaurants and 57-teppanyaki restaurants nationwide.

It specializes in "eatertainment," Japanese themed teppanyaki and sushi. Teppanyaki style of cooking is food cooked over a steel grill.

Like Sakura, customers can sit around one of the 18-teppanyaki tables and see a trained chef dice, slice and grill vegetables, steak, chicken and shrimp.

More than 960 million shrimp have been served through the years, according to information provided by the company. Last year Benihana earned more than $8.7 million.

"They come for the show, and stay for the food," Biede said.

Since Benihana is a chain restaurant, there are certain design standards the company is required to meet. The building is more than 8,300-square-feet and at least four years old. Architecturally, nothing will be changed, Biede said.

"Mr. An has wonderful taste," he said.

The d├ęcor will be changed to fit the company's design.

In addition to the teppanyaki tables, the space offers a separate sushi bar, a lounge and an area for live entertainment.

The process for changing from Sakura to Benihana was an extensive one, Biede said, and involved more than changing the outside signage.

The corporate office has sent chefs from all over the United States to train former employees of Sakura in the Benihana way.

All employees of Sakura were invited to stay on when the sale was completed, Biede said.

Even though the restaurant staffs 15 specially trained chefs, they still needed additional training in the specific techniques that made Benihana famous, Biede said.

"This is an opportunistic purchase that we expect to be accretive in the current fiscal year," said Joel A. Schwartz, President and CEO of Benihana in a press release.

Sakura Japanese Cuisine, 6534 E. Tanque Verde Road, is still open and owned by An.

Benihana also owns RA Sushi restaurants, which is located at La Encantada, 2905 E. Skyline Drive. There are currently six RA Sushi restaurants in the United States.

Erin Schmidt covers the Catalina Foothills community and schools. She can be reached at 797-4384 ext 125 or eschmidt@explorernews.com

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