Exclusive: Steve Aoki on His Epic DJ Life and Big Plans to Expand Bluetree Café
Steve and Kevin Aoki want to take Bluetree worldwide.
Photo: Raul Soria Jr.
When you’re Steve Aoki, one of the highest-paid touring DJs in the world, that means playing 230 to 300 sold-out shows a year, collaborating with musical artists and vocalists that include will.i.am, Kid Cudi, Fall Out Boy, Linkin Park, and recording albums that top the Billboard dance and electronica charts and get nominated for Grammy and MTV awards. And that’s while juggling sponsorships, endorsements and business ventures, so there’s little time to waste with sleeping, vegging out or eating junk food.
“I really don’t take that many breaks,” says Steve Aoki, in a weekend interview with HONOLULU Magazine. “I tour a lot, it’s a fast-paced schedule. Staying fit, eating right, that’s how I keep my stamina going and it’s part of how I’m able to do so much.”
Spinning records for tens of thousands of people a night, Aoki parties on stage without getting pounded by the party lifestyle. He doesn’t drink or smoke and he doesn’t eat beef or pork. Instead, he tears into a big acai bowl topped with bananas, blueberries and honey at Bluetree Café on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, the café/juice bar he owns with brother Kevin Aoki. This is just before playing a show at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park as part of the closing party for POW! WOW! 2017 and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Dim Mak, Aoki’s event company and music label. He’s on vacation here, but he’s still working. Seeing Kevin, his brother and cafe business partner, is a bonus.
“We started [Bluetree ] in 2012 and the whole inspiration was from our grandfather,” says Kevin Aoki, who also owns Doraku Sushi next door. His grandfather, Yunosuke Aoki, owned a cafe in Japan that served coffee and desserts during World War II as a way to bring people together. “Back during the war, everyone was at home or in caves or underground, they were hiding. He wanted to make friends.”
Originally named “Ellington” after Duke Ellington (Yunosuke and wife Katsu’s favorite jazz musician), Yunosuke one day spotted a red safflower thriving amid the rubble of war-torn Tokyo and changed the name of his cafe to the Japanese homonym for safflower: Benihana.
Yunosuke’s first son Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki would move to New York City after the war and open a restaurant of his own in honor of his parents. In 1964, using $10,000 he saved from running an ice cream truck in Harlem, Rocky opened a theatrical Japanese teppanyaki-style restaurant that shared the name of his grandfather’s coffee shop and evolved into a popular chain. And just like the original Benihana, it was about bringing people together. “With Bluetree and Steve, it just made sense to combine coffee, wellness and a place to hang out, just like our grandfather did,” says Kevin Aoki.
Steve Aoki explains: “Growing up, when Kevin finished college, he went into the restaurant business. I was always in music. My first real job, I was working for Kevin in Dallas.” Steve remembers peeling onions and working back-of-house at restaurants. Then the brothers came to Hawai‘i, where Kevin managed Benihana in Waikīkī and Steve worked as a host. “Kevin kind of ushered me into the family business. He opened up Bluetree, got me involved and said ‘let’s work together’ because as a health nut, it makes sense for me.”
Bluetree Café today is known for coffee, juice, smoothies and acai bowls, wrapped in a hip cafe lounge atmosphere. The coffee is all locally sourced in Hawai‘i, the smoothies are made without ice (because you’re paying for fresh ingredients, says Kevin, not to fill up on ice) and the acai is fresh from the Amazon.
“It’s about focusing on small details,” says Kevin, who gestures to a small garden outside. Fresh mint grows in tubs on the top and fish swim in tubs on the bottom, creating a self-sustaining system. Inside the cafe, Bluetree uses a nontoxic pH spray made out of lemongrass to kill the bacteria on their vegetables. To make the juices and smoothies, Kevin says most places will use a “high pressure processing” centrifugal system (often a blender with swirling blades like your standard juicer) which can give juice a longer shelf life but loses some nutrients along the way. Bluetree instead uses an unpasteurized cold-press method which preserves the vitamins, minerals and enzymes. “The whole idea is to give honest food to customers,” Kevin says.
The duo plans expansion this year, with Bluetree locations slated in the Kaka‘ako Collection, a spot in the Vanguard Lofts and the Kapolei Commons. Steve and Kevin Aoki want to take Bluetree worldwide, beyond the two locations here and in Florida, beginning with spots in Japan, Korea and across the United States to New York and Dallas. “The brand we’re building is global and luckily for me, I tour around the world,” Steve says.
Almost as long as he’s been touring, Hawai‘i has been an important spot for Steve to play. “I love my Hawai‘i fans. We’ve hit 20 years with the company [Dim Mak], so we did 20 shows around the world in 20 different cities. We only did eight shows in America and two of them are here in Hawai‘i, on Maui and O‘ahu.”
In the islands, Steve Aoki swims and finds adventure. He likes China Walls and spent the morning on the North Shore, swimming with sharks, no cage. And he loves poi. “It reminds me of acai but without the sugar,” Steve says. “I love me some poi.”
Although he lives in Las Vegas, he’s happy to visit Hawai‘i. And if his work in the music industry ever winds down, he know there’ll be a job waiting for him at Bluetree. “He’s pretty good at spinning [records] so…” Kevin Aoki jokes, moving a flat hand in circles as if he’s wiping down a table. Steve Aoki laughs.