A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Hibachi-Style restaurants have become popular in recent years, but they are not without risk

Hibachi-style Japanese restaurants have been growing in popularity since first appearing in the United States in 1964, when the Benihana opened its first restaurant in New York. Today, there are thousands across the U.S.

The term “Hibachi-Style” is often used in the United States as a term for Japanese teppanyaki cooking, in which gas-heated hotplates are integrated into tables around which many people (often multiple parties) can sit and eat at once.

Hibachi restaurants use this cooking technique and turn it into an interactive culinary experience for restaurant-goers, where chefs stir fry the meal while putting on an entertaining performance by throwing food around, twirling their cooking tools, and getting the audience to participate by catching food with their mouths, and washing it down with a little Sake sprayed into a diner’s mouth.

Hibachi-style dining has become very popular in the U.S. in recent years (Photo from Flickr commons)

These chefs typically add a fiery theatrical flair by lighting a volcano-shaped stack of raw onion hoops on fire, or by creating a 2–3-foot flame in the center of the grill, where the guests can feel the radiating heat from their seats.

Having seen or investigated all types of accidents and injuries over the years, this has always concerned me. While eating at such establishments over the years, I have found myself always scooting my chair back when the chef begins to prepare the fire presentation out of respect for what could happen.

The calculations are there. You just have to do the simple math. Whenever you place people, families, and children within 2-3 feet of a hot grill and introduce a flammable liquid for theatrical purposes something bad is eventually going to happen. It’s the law of averages.

The internet is filled with stories of people who are burned, sometimes severely, while eating at Hibachi-style restaurants. Even actress Tori Spelling, of the hit television show Beverly Hills 90210, once suffered a third-degree burn dining at such an establishement, resulting in a personal injury lawsuit in April 2015.

I first became aware of just how dangerous Hibachi restaurants can be when an attorney reached out to me for advice on a case he was working on. A family had experienced a horrific incident where their 2-year-old girl was severely injured. The family was sitting around the hibachi grill as the chef went to create a fire presentation. The display exploded and blew across the grill severely burning the little girl, who later had to undergo extensive and painful burn treatments leaving her scarred.

A patron backs away from the heat of a Hibachi fire presentation (Photo from Flickr commons)

After reviewing the evidence and researching the Hibachi restaurant industry, I discovered that there were very few controls in place to ensure that such incidents do not occur. There aren’t any fire safety codes or national fire safety standards in place for these restaurants to follow.

In the restaurant industry typically, there is very little safety training provided to employees due to high turnover rates.

According to the attorney asking all these questions, most restaurants do not have training manuals or safety instructions, or so much as a simple step-by-step guide on how to perform a fire presentation safely.

From my research, I discovered that becoming a Hibachi chef takes about six to eight months to complete. These chefs are highly skilled, and the training is usually given by a master chef, and it’s a very informal and hands-on process. In the beginning, chefs in training may only prepare food for their colleagues and will spend countless hours practicing their skills before the master chef will allow them to perform in front of paying guests.

The fact is, a lot of effort goes into the cooking, food presentation, and theatrics of these presentations, and very little goes into the safety of the patrons.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@higusa.com

Many Hibachi-style restaurants never properly take the time to assess the fire presentation from a risk management perspective. They never formally evaluate the steps and procedures and determined the probability and severity of such incidents, or develop proven countermeasures to mitigate the risk. Many of these restaurants will either use vodka or lemon extract to ignite the fire. The problem with lemon extract however is that it must be diluted with water, or it is more explosive.

During the incident the attorney references, the chef admitted to the responding police officer that he forgot to dilute the lemon extract before the fire presentation. So the question is, what quality control measures could the restaurant have put in place to ensure that the lemon extract is properly diluted? Why leave it up to the individual chefs to dilute their lemon extract?

The flammability and explosive hazard associated with the lemon extract are very clear in the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). If these restaurants would take the time and follow Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required guidelines, review the SDS for the lemon extract and provide the required safety training to chefs on the hazards associated with its use they could prevent many of these incidents.

Another contributing factor is most chefs usually never measure out the amount of flammable liquid and will instead spray it out of a bottle onto a hot grill, oftentimes in the direction of guests. In some situations, patrons that were burned stated that some of the flammable liquid splashed onto her face just before being engulfed in flames.

Many chefs will use unlabeled spray bottles on their cart and most times they are not universal in color to identify the contents as flammable liquid. They should be using spill-proof bottles kept in a universal color red to help identify them as a flammable.

From my experience, chef carts or stations aren’t equipped with fire extinguishers nor do they have fire blankets stationed nearby. Many have never been trained on how to operate the overhead fire suppression system above the grill.

Hibachi chefs depend on tips, and they have an incentive to entertain their guests. The bigger the fire, the better the entertainment value, but only if nobody gets hurt.

Hibachi-style restaurants market to families. Whenever any business caters to young children, a higher standard of professional care is required to ensure the safety of young patrons. They must become more vigilant from a risk management perspective and ensure that these fundamental quality controls are in place.

Hibachi-style restaurants are fun places to eat, and I will continue to patronize them. But ownership and management must take the time to implement quality control safety measures to prevent any future burn injuries.

Be Safe My Friends.

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