Kevin Aoki (left) and a surveillance capture of the semi-truck he believes proceeded to steal a shipping container loaded with family heirlooms bound for Oahu.Screenshot courtesy of the Aoki Group
This past Saturday afternoon, Kevin Aoki was preparing to ship some of his most treasured family heirlooms from Miami to Hawaii. The second-generation restaurateur, son of the late Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant empire, packed most of the items into the 40-foot shipping container himself; the precious cargo included handmade furniture and priceless artifacts and memorabilia handed down to him from his father.
The items were to be the finishing touches on Aoki's newest restaurant, Doraku Sushi in Kapolei, on the island of Oahu. The shipping container was locked and stored at the Aoki Group Restaurant Management headquarters on NW Seventh Avenue in Allapattah to await transportation to the Port of Miami for its journey to Hawaii.
Surveillance footage shows an unknown dark red trailer pulling up to the container, loading the 20-ton box onto its bed, and driving away. A white logo on the door is illegible.
Kevin Aoki described the incident to New Times in a phone call on Tuesday afternoon. He says he and his team began loading the container last Wednesday.
"We started loading the container one box at a time, like Tetris cubes," he recounts. "It took three days to finish."
On Saturday, the team locked up the shipping container with about 40,000 pounds of restaurant equipment and assorted items packed inside, and Aoki departed on a flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, for his daughter's graduation.
And then, says Aoki, "On Saturday night around 11:55, a rig pulled up and took the 40-foot container within two minutes."
Aoki estimates that about $200,000 of restaurant equipment was inside the container, including refrigerators, fryers, and stainless steel cookware.
All that, says the restaurateur, can be replaced. Far more valuable were the items that were to be used to decorate the restaurant.
"I love motorcycles, so I put four old-school motorcycles in the container," Aoki says, explaining that he planned to theme the new restaurant in a Japanese biker style. He also added several rare whiskies from his own collection.
But the truly most priceless items came from Rocky.
"My father was a big collector of Asian artifacts," says Aoki. "If you go to Doraku on Lincoln Road or Aoki Teppanyaki in Dadeland, you'll see many of my father's items. It created a level of authenticity. I put all those things that my dad left me in the container."
Adds Aoki: "The main thing I lost in that container was my father."
He's still in shock.
"It's 40,000 pounds," he repeats. "I had to estimate the weight for shipping."
Handcarved tables like the ones shown here were among the cargo that had been loaded into the shipping container.
Photo courtesy of the Aoki Group
In hindsight, he figures someone was watching as the items were loaded into the container, then came back for them — and came prepared.
Aoki is en route back to Miami to meet with detectives.
"Miami is a shipping town," he says with evident pessimism. "There are containers all over the city, and they all look the same."
Still, he adds, the container has to go somewhere. "They have to find a big warehouse or lot to unload it. I have the vessel number. If I have to drive all over town, I'll do it."
One of seven siblings in a family that includes a famous DJ and a successful actress, Kevin Aoki is the only one of Rocky's children to follow in their dad's footsteps. After working at Benihana until Rocky's death in 2008, Aoki proceeded to open restaurants of his own, including Doraku and Aoki Teppanyaki. Although he laments that his father never lived to see the next generation of his legacy, owning pieces from his father's personal collection provided an enduring connection.
Aoki is offering a $25,000 reward for the return of the container and the items inside — going so far as to extend the bounty to the thieves.
"I will exchange the reward for the container. No questions asked. I just want to get my container back," the restaurateur says.
Anyone who has information regarding the purloined container is urged to contact the Miami Police Department at 305-603-6640 or message him directly on Instagram at @kevaoki.
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.