San Jose Tofu, a Japanese American institution, to close

San Jose Tofu to close Dec. 30, 2017 for the final time. photo by Tim Moran

SAN JOSE — After more than seven decades of handcrafting tofu from scratch, San Jose Japantown’s iconic San Jose Tofu will close its doors for good Dec. 30, leaving a community in mourning over the loss of one of Japanese America’s most unique businesses.

“We’re tired, and while I’m still able to walk, we want to rest, clean up the house, repair the house, and maybe take a trip,” Chester Nozaki, the 61-year-old third-generation owner of the culinary establishment with his wife Amy, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“Everybody’s tired.”

“When Amy and Chester gently informed us that they were closing the tofu-ya, I was beyond shocked … ,” said PJ Hirabayashi, a co-founder of San Jose Taiko with her husband Roy. “Eyes welling up with tears, it was like hearing someone close to me had passed.”

“It is a San Jose and Japantown institution,” said Tamiko Rast of Rasteroids Design, who serves as board president of the Japantown Business Association. “The Japantown community has not even begun to process how it will affect the neighborhood, but the loss will be felt by all.”

“The tofu shop is a cultural jewel of the community and will be hard to replace,” said John Ristow, board chair of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose. “Food is such an important piece of cultural identity and the tofu made by the Nozakis truly added to the cultural and historic fabric of San Jose’s Japantown.”

“(San Jose Tofu is) possibly one of the most unique and historical businesses in not only Japantown but in all of San Jose,” said Reiko Iwanaga, an event planner and lead choreographer of San Jose Obon. “It’s always interesting that I see people from outside the area who come just for the tofu.”

Rooted in Community
San Jose Tofu was started by Nozaki’s grandfather in 1946. “When dad took over, grandfather came over to help, did ‘barber shop talk’” with customers during the transition, he said.

Chester got his start in the family business early, when as a nine-year-old he would deliver the tofu down the street to locations such as Dobashi Market in a “little red wagon,” which became somewhat embarrassing as he got closer to his teen years. “It was rough, but it was fun.”

Nozaki’s integration into the family business grew deeper in 1981, when he started working full-time there. Although he had aspirations as an industrial engineering student at San Jose State University, his father Takeshi convinced him to go into the tofu business.

“My dad lost quite a lot of accounts,” Nozaki said. “I went around Japantown to talk to people I grew up with” to try to get accounts back. “I told them I would be there and I would do deliveries. I pretty much got all the accounts back.”

When his father retired in 2000, Chester Nozaki took full reigns of San Jose Tofu.

Over the years, new products have come and gone, and some never made it past the testing phase. Nozaki’s mother, for a while, made age (dried tofu skins used in inarizushi), and they started making soy milk in the 1980s, with Amy and their employee perfecting it in the 1990s.

But the experimental tofu ice cream never made it to the storefront. “We just ate it. It was too much work.”

At its peak, the family business had four employees, including Nozaki’s mother. It closes with three, including a highly valued 27-year employee who started with Nozaki’s father.

Deciding to Close
The decision to close was not taken lightly, it seems. While saddened by the loss, a sense of gratitude remains omnipresent for the Nozaki family for their years of dedication to quality artisan tofu.

Ristow characterized the community reaction as being “a bit of shock and sadness but understanding of the family’s situation.”

Iconic Japanese American business — San Jose Tofu owners Amy and Chester Nozaki. photo by Kota Morikawa

According to Nozaki, he and his wife Amy were thinking about closure during the summer. “We didn’t pull the trigger until the last moment.”

They started to tell people “very slowly” after Thanksgiving, asking them to keep it “hush-hush,” and told close customers on Dec. 1.

Then after the weekend, they became more public about the decision on Dec. 4.

“They’ve been telling me to reconsider,” Nozaki said. “(They say) there are other options (like to) reduce business hours. We all thought about that before.

“There’s really no leisure time for ourselves as a family.”

According to Nozaki, the peak consumption of San Jose Tofu that he recalls was in the late 1980s, and sales have been declining in the past five years. “Tofu has been getting relatively expensive for the elders,” he said, noting that the price of the handmade San Jose Tofu is $2.25 per block.

Today, with the advancement of machinery, the competition has been somewhat fierce.

“Nowadays … machine-made tofu is going for a dollar,” Nozaki said. “We can’t order (supplies) in bulk like the big markets.”

The demographics of his customer base has changed, Nozaki said, as the once large Nikkei customer base has been replaced by loyal customers of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese descent. “Millennials don’t really come in here,” he adds.

Declining sales, however, were not a big factor in their decision to close, Nozaki said. Neither was the fact that the building San Jose Tofu is housed in was purchased by the owners of Gombei Restaurant next door, who have also started to sell their own brand of tofu in recent years.

It mainly came down to physical “wear and tear,” he said.

Community Appreciation
As the shock and sadness of the decision to close slowly starts to fade, parallel to that is a growing sense of appreciation for the Nozakis.

“In a world driven by profit generation and tremendous pressure to cut corners and automate production, the San Jose Tofu Co. has commendably stood apart as a precious landmark of San Jose Japantown,” said Ryan Kawamoto, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai, a Japanese American senior service agency in San Jose’s Japantown. “The closing … is a devastating loss that will be felt by our entire community, including Yu-Ai Kai’s older adult participants, who for many years have been privileged to enjoy such wonderful and fresh tofu.”

Yu-Ai Kai senior Peggy Furukawa said that she’ll miss going there every Friday to order tofu for the Friday night karaoke club potluck.

“The work they do as artisans has always been inspirational and a source of pride for San Jose Taiko as ambassadors of this community,” said San Jose Taiko Artistic Director Franco Imperial, whose group performs across the country. “There is simply no replacement for what they’ve added to Japantown as … providers of something so delicious, so identifiable with this neighborhood.

Over the years, so many out-of-town taiko guests would be sure to pick up tofu in Japantown before heading back to LA or another city. When I first joined San Jose Taiko many years ago, I didn’t fully understand it. Now I realize they weren’t just bringing back containers of tofu and water. They were bringing home containers of love, pride, flavor of a place. This was a unique treasure that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Richard Kogura, a Japantown Community Congress of San Jose board member, has told out-of-towners how fortunate they were to have a tofu shop in their community. “Those of us who live in Japantown have always eaten fresh tofu, and never purchase the ‘prepackaged’ tofu — it does not taste the same,” said Kogura, whose family has run Kogura Company for decades. “(It’s) the same that our grandparents ate. With San Jose Tofu, you’re able to experience a little of SJ Japantown history.”

The tofu also resonated with Japanese newcomers.

“In my opinion, SJ Tofu preserves the old fashion way to make tofu,” said Japantown resident Yoko Kobashi, who was born and raised in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. “I enjoy its homemade tofu texture. It is exactly the same taste … when I was a child in Japan.”

Kobashi, a local Japanese language school teacher, said that she’ll miss seeing the long lines on New Year’s Eve where most of the customers bring their own containers. Her husband Tsukasa, the branch manager of a Japanese company, called it “authentic Japanese tofu” and noted that they also produce “tasty okara,” a tofu by-product.

Future Plans
While the community contemplates where they will get their tofu after Dec. 30, the Nozakis are envisioning a much-deserved rest.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to vacation much,” said Nozaki, noting that he’d like to visit places he’d only seen as close as his television. “I’ve never been to Hawai‘i. I only see it on TV. I’d like to see Japan. I’d like to see Taiwan.”

So instead of turning in the towel, why not just take an extended vacation?

“The workload triples up on us on the very first day,” explained Nozaki, who has had back problems since he was 16. “It gets back-breaking. I would be in constant pain. I would take any kind of painkillers just to walk.”

Nozaki, who does the majority of deliveries as far north as San Mateo’s Suruki and Takahashi markets, said he has knee problems as well, and is “physically falling apart.”

He does realize that because of his age, he may have to take on a part-time or full-time job. “I can’t claim Social Security or Medicare yet,” Nozaki said.

“Japantown is losing a wonderful contributor, but we will move forward and maybe someone else would be interested in contributing the craft of making homemade tofu,” said Ristow. “We would like to thank the Nozaki family for the many years of fantastic homemade tofu… We are truly sorry that they have decided to close their shop but understand their situation and decision.”

Would selling the business be an option to consider, some have asked?

“It came to mind. We thought about it,” he said. “I don’t really know.”

Selling the business, he figured, would mean that he would have to stick around to train people to make the artisan tofu. “That would be something I would not be looking forward to,” he said. “I don’t want to break my back doing that. Maybe.”

San Jose Tofu is located at 175 Jackson St. in San Jose’s Japantown, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (408) 292-7026.

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