LOS ANGELES — Mikawaya, the iconic 105-year-old Japanese confectionary maker known for creating the popular Mochi Ice Cream, has been sold to a private equity firm, Century Park Capital Partners.
Mikawaya is a multi-million-dollar business that specializes in wagashi (Japanese pastries) and is mainly known for its Mochi Ice Cream, which is sold and distributed through both national grocery chains and independent stores, as well as in Japanese and general food service locations.
Century Park plans to distribute and sell Mikawaya’s Mochi Ice Cream nationwide, Martin Sarafa, the El Segundo-based firm’s managing partner, announced in a press release.
Mikawaya has been a “traditionally run family business that has recently enjoyed significant growth due to its innovative and high quality products,” Sarafa stated. “Our plan is to bring new resources of capabilities to the company to dramatically increase the market awareness and penetration of its on-trend Mochi Ice Cream products.”
Started in L.A. in 1910
The business got its start in 1910 when Issei immigrant Ryuzaburo Hashimoto established Mikawaya in Little Tokyo, and named the store after his hometown of Mikawa in Aichi-ken.
In 1925, the founder sold the business to his nephew Koroku Hashimoto and Koroku’s wife Haru, who operated the confectionery store until World War II, when the family was incarcerated in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans at Poston, Ariz. Their daughter Frances, who would later take over Mikawaya, was born at Poston in 1943.
Returning to Little Tokyo after the war, Koroku and Haru reopened their business on Dec. 23, 1945, and carried on for almost three decades. Their daughter Frances, a University of Southern California graduate who taught elementary school for four years, took over in 1970. Frances Hashimoto ran the business with her husband, Joel Friedman, until her death in November 2012. Mikawaya now includes two retail outlets, one in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village Plaza, and one in Torrance. At one time they had three other stores — Little Tokyo Galleria, Pacific Square in Gardena and Honolulu.
Despite the economic downturn of recent years, business “remains constant,” Friedman said in a January 2014 article. “When people are having financial difficulties, they look for inexpensive things they can enjoy. Our product is relatively inexpensive … During the Great Depression back in the ‘30s, Mikawaya’s business actually boomed for that same reason.”
Mikawaya’s success continued with the popularity of their traditional Japanese pastries, or wagashi, in addition to a unique new product — the Mochi Ice Cream, a ball of ice cream enveloped in a soft and chewy sweet rice cake called mochi. Frances Hashimoto took her husband’s idea and developed the frozen dessert.
“In 1994 we started selling our Mochi Ice Cream, which has become a big hit everywhere,” declared Friedman, who took over Mikawaya‘s management after his wife died. “In the pastry line, the main customers would be the Japanese, as well as Korean and Chinese. Our most popular item is Mochi Ice Cream, that’s enjoyed by all ethnic people — Asians and non-Asians.”
Irene Tsukada Simonian, president of Bunkado, a long-time gift shop in Little Tokyo, commented, “No one has said for sure what’s going to happen to the Mikawaya shops. I understand a larger company wanting to purchase the Mochi Ice Cream portion of the business. I have a hard time really believing they would want to continue this mom-and-pop location in Little Tokyo … If Little Tokyo loses Mikawaya, it would be a loss for the community.”
Many people, including her employees, are concerned about the deal, she said. “I totally understand the family’s decision to sell … These businesses can’t be expected to go forever. It’s just one of those things — shikataganai, it can’t be helped.”
Little Tokyo still has Fugetsu-Do, she pointed out. “If they were to disappear, then there would be a major impact because we’d lose all manju and Japanese confectionary presence in the community.”
Little Tokyo Business Association President Ellen Endo mentioned speaking to Friedman, who didn’t respond to numerous queries from this newspaper. She reported he was “very upbeat” about the sale. “He sees it as a growth for the company, which he couldn’t have accomplished on his own. I don’t know the details of the deal; I know it’s not like a 100 percent sale of the company.”
Friedman assured her that they’re keeping the retail stores open, Endo recounted. “The wagashi side will continue as it always has. He’s very optimistic about the future of Mikawaya.”
For businesses in the Nikkei community, she emphasized, it’s good for everybody to “see what can be done to grow it … or to market it better. I’d like to see as many Japanese American-owned-and-operated businesses continue to be healthy and leave a legacy for the next generation. Otherwise, we’re going to lose them to natural attrition.”
New CEO Appointed
Century Park’s Sarafa announced that Jerry Bucan is joining Mikawaya as its chief executive officer, and said Bucan brings more than 25 years of senior level management experience in branded consumer products, including companies like Nestle, ConAgra and others.
“Mochi Ice Cream is an emerging and growing specialty food category, and Mikawaya is the category leader,” Bucan commented. “So this is a truly rare and exciting opportunity to significantly grow both the category and the Mikawaya business by bringing this ethnic-influenced product more fully into the general market.”
Friedman will continue to be involved with Mikawaya as chairman emeritus, declared Sarafa.