Benihana makes sale speculation official

Announcement follows recent board member shakeup

Benihana Inc. officially put itself on the market Thursday, reporting it had hired a financial advisor to pursue a sale of the company, which is parent to three Japanese-themed restaurant chains.

Miami-based Benihana, which in July began to explore strategic alternatives, said it had hired Jefferies & Co. as its exclusive financial advisor “in pursuing a sale of the company.”

“Although there can be no assurance of any transaction at the end of the process, we expect Jefferies & Co. Inc. to leverage its significant restaurant financial advisory experience and capital markets background in assisting and advising us during the sale process,” Richard Stockinger, Benihana’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

Stockinger also said Benihana’s year-old “renewal program” was yielding top-line improvements with its emphasis on food quality, beverages, facilities and staff training.

The announcement came just days before Benihana’s Sept. 28 shareholder meeting, and on the tail end of certain shareholder battles. To avoid a proxy battle at the annual meeting with two major shareholders Benihana agreed to expand its board of directors to 10 members, including representative board directors from the two shareholder parties.

The company agreed to a candidate from Benihana of Tokyo, a company held by the family of late company founder Rocky H. Aoki. Aoki’s widow won control of Benihana of Tokyo from his children in an Aug. 31 New York State Court ruling. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Benihana said it was nominating Michael W. Kata, who represents Benihana of Tokyo.

In August, Benihana also capitulated to hedge fund Coliseum Capital Management of New York and endorsed its managing director, Adam Gray, for a board seat.

For the fiscal year ended in March, Benihana reported revenue of $313.5 million, compared with $305.6 million in 2009. Its net loss for the latest year widened to $8.9 million, from a loss of $5.1 million a year earlier. Its systemwide same-store sales for fiscal 2010 fell 5.8 percent.

Benihana owns 97 restaurants nationwide, including 63 Benihana Teppanyaki restaurants, nine Haru sushi restaurants and 25 RA Sushi Bars. In addition, it franchises 20 Benihana units in the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected] [3].