END OF AN ERA: Sacramento Tofu Company closes after 68 years

SIGN OF THE TIMES — Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi stand next to the sign which once hung over the business when it was located on 6th Street near Southside Park in the 1950s on Nov. 19, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The Kunishis were cleaning up the remnants of their family business, which produced fresh tofu for more than 60 years in Sacramento. photo:  Sacaramento Bee / Randy Pench The Kunishi's are cleaning up the remnants of their family business, which produced fresh tofu for more than 60 years in Sacramento.

SIGN OF THE TIMES — Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi stand next to the sign which once hung over the business when it was located on 6th Street near Southside Park in the 1950s on Nov. 19, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. The Kunishis were cleaning up the remnants of their family business, which produced fresh tofu for more than 60 years in Sacramento.
photo: Sacaramento Bee / Randy Pench

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After 68 years in business, rising from the aftermath of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, the Sacramento Tofu Company officially closed its doors on Nov. 30. Owner Alvin Kunishi, 71, and his wife Dorothy, who helped handle the book work, entered retirement and handed over their keys to Hodo Soy Beanery founder Minh Tsai the very next day.

The Kunishis are now landlords of the facility and are leasing it to Tsai.

Alvin Kunishi, who took over the business for his Nisei father, worked 36 long years before deciding to retire, and said that there are other tofu-making companies to fill the void he may have left.

“What we did was not really special but the special-ness was that we were a small tofu-ya that provided for the community and we made age (fried bean curd) for the Japanese community,” he said. “That’s what set us apart from other tofu-yas. Otherwise, we’re not that special,” he added with a chuckle.

But the reactions among the Japanese American community in Sacramento, Calif. say otherwise.

One location that stirred many responses was Oto’s Marketplace. Fish and meat counter staff member David Wong said the biggest reactions came from their older customers.

“They were a little sad because (Sacramento Tofu Co.) was closing down and we couldn’t get them the tofu that they were so used to buying,” said Wong, who has been working behind the counter for more than a year.

When notified of Kunishi’s retirement, Oto’s Marketplace General Manager Russell Oto said they sampled tofu from various locations from as far as Los Angeles but “nothing came close to the taste and texture of Sacramento Tofu.” Oto said they have been ordering from the Kunishis for 40 years.

Yonsei Michelle Huey, 24, said she grew up eating tofu from Sacramento Tofu Co. and drank its soy milk in college. Compared to other brands, Huey said Sacramento Tofu Co. tofu was “softer and less crumbly.”

“I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to have access to fresh, local tofu, and it was something I took for granted,” she said.

Oto eventually chose to buy from Fay Wong Tofu Company, located in Sacramento. The tofu pieces are small — about one-fourth the size of the tofu blocks Kunishi made — generating some negative responses according to Wong, but are sold for a cheaper price as well. Oto said a few older customers don’t mind the smaller size because it is perfect for a single serving.

As far as the quality, Oto said Fay Wong tofu “isn’t bad.” It has the same texture as Kunishi’s tofu but the “beany” flavor isn’t as strong.

Osaka-ya owner Linda Nakatani said she was in shock when she read the letter from the Kunishis notifying her of their retirement. She has been ordering from Sacramento Tofu Co. since 1998.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do?’ because we were ordering from them every day and it was fresh and people really loved it,” she said.

Besides selling homemade manju and mochi, Osaka-ya also sells grocery items like sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot dish) meat and tofu by the block. Nakatani said people who bought sukiyaki meat would also buy tofu, which was especially convenient for those who lived in Downtown Sacramento close to her shop.

Now, after trying tofu from several different places, Nakatani settled on buying tofu from Gombei in the South Bay, which is owned by a man from Japan. Nakatani picks up her order on her way to deliver Osaka-ya manju orders to the San Jose’s Nijiya Market. Nakatani said that in her experience, Gombei’s tofu is the closest to the way Sacramento Tofu Co.’s tofu tasted.

However, Nakatani said tofu sales have been slow recently, so she has reduced her pick-up schedule from two times a week to one time each week. This could be due to the increased price of Gombei tofu and how uncertain people are of its taste. She also found that most people would only buy the firm tofu type so she stopped ordering Gombei’s soft tofu.

“We never expected (Kunishi) to retire, even though they are at that age of retiring,” said Nakatani with a laugh.

COMMUNITY INSTITUTION CLOSES — Blocks of Sacramento Tofu, shown in this 2009 photo, will no longer be produced after close to seven decades.     photo: Sacaramento Bee / Paul Kitagaki Jr.

COMMUNITY INSTITUTION CLOSES — Blocks of Sacramento Tofu, shown in this 2009 photo, will no longer be produced after close to seven decades. photo: Sacaramento Bee / Paul Kitagaki Jr.

Kunishi’s father, Hiroshi “Tom” Kunishi, was about 66 years old when he retired in the late 1970s. At the time, Alvin Kunishi was working in the Bay Area as a nuclear engineer at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. As the only son and oldest of four children, Kunishi returned to Sacramento to take over the family business in 1979.

Nakatani said she and her family used to live half a block away from one of Sacramento Tofu Co.’s older locations off of Sixth Street. She grew up eating Sacramento Tofu Co. tofu and remembers her mother would pick it up often for dinners at home.

Kunishi said his father moved to this location in 1956, which used to be a bakery called Paris Bakery. His father converted the space into a tofu-ya and his family lived upstairs.

Nisei Christine Umeda said she remembers her mother driving to Sacramento’s Japantown to buy tofu for dinner as well.

“She would serve it in okazu (side dish) cold with bonito, ginger and green onion, yum. It was especially good in sukiyaki and mixed with spinach,” she said.

When the Kunishi business outgrew the Sixth Street location, Alvin Kunishi moved the business to the Belvedere Ave. facility in 1991, where it remained until his retirement.

While working as the tofu-ya owner, Kunishi produced tofu, deep fried tofu, age, soy milk and noodles for pasta, chow mein and udon (wheat flour noodles). Unfortunately, he had to stop noodle production because of the issues they had with Workers’ Compensation. They employed up to 17 people at that time before needing to reduce the number.

Kunishi thinks Sacramento Tofu Co. was one of two places in the U.S. that made age. Oto and Nakatani liked using the locally-made age so much that both business owners stocked up on enough of it to last them through this year’s New Year season.

Nakatani said she liked the Sacramento Tofu Co. age because it allowed her to season it with her own inarizushi age flavor and the size was perfect for inarizushi.

“We couldn’t find it anywhere, no matter what different places we tried age from, it just doesn’t match up with Sacramento Tofu age,” she said.

Oto said he bought about 700 dozen age skins. Neither Oto nor Nakatani know where they will buy their age from after this year ends.

“We primarily did it as a service to the community,” said Kunishi, who admitted making age was difficult. “It’s a Japanese tradition (for a tofu-ya) to make age, so we continued that tradition.”

Although Tsai was given access to the facility at the beginning of December, the Hodo Soy founder said tofu production won’t begin until spring or summer of 2016. He said they need to design the space layout, bring in new equipment and obtain permits, among other things, before being fully operational.

Known for being the only place to make organic yuba (tofu skin) in the U.S., Tsai said they will primarily focus on making 100 percent organic, non-GMO Hodo Soy tofu at the Sacramento facility and would like to service some of Kunishi’s previous customers in the future.

Tsai said that Kunishi’s “bitter-sweet” story of how he gave up his career to carry on the family business is what attracted him to their shop.

“That, to me, is amazing because I believe tofu is such a delicious traditional food, but it’s also a very difficult business to run,” said Tsai, and adds that he feels honored to be able to continue making tofu in Sacramento, something he said the Kunishi family have paved the road for.

Comments

  1. So sorry to see Sacramento Tofu go. As a fellow tofu maker I understand the hard work and diligence it takes to be really good at it and so I salute Alvin for sticking with it all those years.
    I met Alvin very shortly after his father retired and remember sitting in his office talking curds and whey watching his bewilderment at shifting from being a nuclear engineer to running the family tofu business. I believe as the oldest son it was his family duty to take over the business maybe not his first
    choice then.

    At that point in my tofu carrerr I was doing research on coagulation and had met the head of the dairy science department at UCDavis, Dr. Walter Dunkley. We needed soymilk for coagulation experiments and I found Alvin in those early transitional days. I took Dr. Dunkley over and we bought buckets of hot soymilk from Alvin and took them back to UCD to experiment with using dairy style coagulation techniques instead of the traditional hand stirring. Without Alvins cooperation we were out of luck as none of the big tofu companies would talk to me as a white guy claiming to be interested in tofu making.

    That pioneering work later became a famous Bay Area soyfoods company called Wildwood Natural Foods.
    So Alvin I salute you and your wife you will be missed and at the same time you will have a well deserved rest.
    I know the Hodo Soy guys and they make excellent products. Also when it comes time to collect the rent you can always sit down with them and talk about the nuisances of curds and whey and smell the hot soymilk cooking.
    Warm regards, Jeremiah Ridenour ex CEO Wildwood Natural Foods.

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