I still remember those days in college, traveling up to visit friends at the University of Florida in Gainesville way back in 2003, with everyone excited to line up for this new restaurant called Bento Cafe. We called it Bento Blue even then because of its blue decor. We lined up to take our orders at the register and waited patiently for our bowls of Taiwanese beef noodle soup or teriyaki chicken bento boxes, with great delight.
Now based in Orlando, Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi, a quick-casual pan-Asian restaurant, enters its 15th year of business this fall.
To honor the benchmark and its customer base fueling the restaurant’s longevity, Bento Café kicked off a “15 Days of Bento” celebration starting on September 15, 2017.
Established in Gainesville during the fall of 2002, Bento Café’s original location opened at 3832 West Newberry Road. It is known as “Bento Blue” due to its vibrant use of blue neon décor, as reported by a Gainesville Sun article covering the opening.
To meet growing demand after the Newberry location launched, the second location on Archer Road (affectionately named by locals as “Bento Red” also due to its décor, and to differentiate between the two) opened in 2007.
Locations in Orlando, Jacksonville, and more recently, Davie and Tallahassee gradually popped up throughout the 15-year run.
“Fifteen years ago when we first opened, we never dreamed of expanding out of Gainesville, and now we have plans to expand out of Florida,” comments owners, Jimmy and Johnny.
The group plans to give back to the customers and community as reaching this anniversary wouldn’t be possible without the support of its loyal following. Bento Café will recognize promotions at participating locations, daily giveaways, and rotating specials from September 15th through September 29th.
Also for every check-in and tag on social media, the group will donate $1 to benefit local charities through the Bento Foundation. The total amount donated will be announced October 1st.
The 15 Days of Bento include:
DAY 1- FRIDAY Sept 15
Spend $20 to receive a free t-shirt while supplies last
DAY 2- SATURDAY Sept 16
Half off boba teas
DAY 3- SUNDAY Sept 17
Free combo upgrades
DAY 4- MONDAY Sept 18
Half off any classic roll
DAY 5- TUESDAY Sept 19
10% of all proceeds to benefit local charities through the Bento foundation at
DAY 6- WEDNESDAY Sept 20
Half off Spicy Cream Chicken Rice Bowl
DAY 7- THURSDAY Sept 21
Gift card Giveaway
Purchase a $50 gift card, get a $10 gift card
DAY 8- FRIDAY Sept 22
Half off beer and sake
DAY 9- SATURDAY Sept 23
20% off call-in order – mention “bento turns 15” at checkout
DAY 10- SUNDAY Sept 24
Family Day – free kids box with purchase of any entree (roll, bowl or box)
DAY 11- MONDAY Sept 25
One free build-a-poke protein upgrade
DAY 12- TUESDAY Sept 26
DAY 13- WEDNESDAY Sept 27
Half off catered lunch coupon
Must drop a business card to receive instant print coupon for half off catering order (limit
DAY 14- THURSDAY Sept 28
Bring your friend, get BOGO Chicken Teriyaki Rice Bowls with student ID
DAY 15- FRIDAY Sept 29
Announcing winner of FREE BENTO FOR A YEAR
We spoke with the founders of Bento to get some more background about the history of the restaurant empire:
How did the story of Bento begin?
Bento began with a small Taiwanese family in Gainesville Florida that had a history of opening and operating traditional Chinese restaurants from small take out places to large Chinese buffets. While attending the University of Florida, the two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny, wanted to open something more modern and hip that could be a cool college hangout and quick place to grab a bite to eat being near the University of Florida.
Quick service Asian restaurants then were pretty much non existent in 2002 so it would be a unique place that had more of a cool decor rather than hanging traditional Asian lanterns and golden dragons. Having been sushi trained we decided to make Bento more of a pan Asian cuisine adding some Thai Curry dishes and Korean dishes. Bento boxes were also already very common in Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese cuisines. Lastly we had to wait for the perfect location that was small, convenient, and near UF and Bento was born at a 40 seat restaurant on Newberry Road.
What was it like in the first year?
The 1st year of opening started off very slow but ended with a line out the door for hours at a time. No one really knew what Bento was all about. People came in confused and looking for a hostess but soon realized the Bento can be a quick stop for good quality Asian food dine-in or takeout.
We started with a staff of 5 and quickly grew to 30 in the first year to meet the demand. We had to change our kitchen layout a few times and had to keep figuring out more ways to produce the food quickly and efficiently without sacrificing the quality.
Once the Gainesville Sun wrote about how unique Bento was, that’s when the lines started. It was challenging to double, triple, quadruple the volume out of such a small restaurant without disappointing our growing fan base.
In the past 15 years, what do you think has changed the most regarding the American palate towards Asian cuisine at Bento? Why?
In 15 years, our fan base has grown a lot and we have seen different items become popular. At first, it was more about the items that people were used to seeing at different Chinese restaurants such as shrimp fried rice and General Tso’s Chicken but have seen more of a shift to more customizable options with our Build a Poke bowls. People are starting to become more adventurous with eating and have started to appreciate more ethnic and fresh ingredients. Also, at Bento, having an open kitchen and sushi bar follows the trend of transparency and making everything in house.
What were some of your biggest challenges through the years?
In the last 15 years, the most common challenges are to continue to stay fresh and stay with the trends in our offerings and our marketing strategies as time passes. As we grow, challenges of product consistency will always be a priority. As we keep building new stores, we have to dedicate the same attention to the aging stores that have been around for 10+ years. Luckily, we have had the same passionate core management team in place for over 10 years now to keep Bento moving in the right direction.
Where do you see Bento in the next 5, 10 years?
Our goal for the next 5 years is to continue to expand to major cities and universities throughout Florida. Tampa Bay has long been part of our expansion and we recently were pleased to announce our downtown St. Petersburg location. We are looking at some locations in Atlanta now as that is the next area we want to target in the Southeast. In 10 years, we would like to be in every major metropolitan city across the U.S.
Bento is hugely popular in college areas, how do you think Bento can reach out to more of the mainstream American audience?
One of Bento’s biggest milestone was opening the 1st Bento outside of our Gainesville college town in downtown Orlando in 2008. It was a big test to see if Bento would do well in a non college market and it was an instant hit with the office professionals downtown. We then opened our Dr.Phillips location in 2009 which was a more residential and tourist area with no university nearby and that store was successful as well.
Once we opened Jacksonville late 2009 that was when we were confident enough that Bento was not just a college spot anymore and that this concept could be open in most markets. We have very recognizable menu items but also have many authentic items that would appeal to both a mainstream crowd and also for people that appreciate more of the hard to find authentic dishes such as Szechuan beef noodle soup and Ginger scallion chicken.
Top Five Best Selling Dishes at Bento
- Spicy Cream Chicken
- Teriyaki Chicken
- Tuna Poke bowl
- Pork Katsu Curry
- Pad Thai
Sushi Best Sellers
Special Mexican Roll
Also, a new menu item – build-a-poke bowls – are on the rise in popularity.
Wishing Bento a happy 15 year anniversary and many more to come! Visit www.bentocafesushi.com for menu, locations, and more.