A changing of the guard for Honolulu tofu factory


TOFU MADE WITH LOVE ­— Aloha Tofu’s Paul Uyehara is the third-generation president of the Honolulu company.
photo by Greg Viloria

Paul Uyehara pointed to the tsuru (crane) and turtle logo on his polo shirt. The third-generation president and custodian of Aloha Tofu Factory, explained that the company logo was created to honor his grandparents, Kamesaburo and Tsuruko Uyehara, who founded the company in 1950.

“To me, it’s kind of a way to always remember my grandparents, the founders,” Uyehara, who has been running the tofu company on his own for the past 12 to 14 years, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. The turtle and tsuru represent part of his grandparents’ names, with kame meaning turtle and tsuru meaning crane in Japanese.

After having a small shop in the early 1960s, the family moved the business to their current location in Honolulu, a larger factory with a warehouse space in 1976, Uyehara noted.

Growing up, Uyehara worked in the factory with his cousins and sisters. As an 11-year-old, Uyehara spent his summer and winter vacations, Sundays and holidays helping his dad at the factory, often going into work with him at 4 a.m.

After high school, Uyehara started thinking about his future and was “willing to come back” to take over the business if his cousins or sisters did not want to continue the family business. Uyehara was the only family member left from the third generation to continue working in the factory. He returned to the company in 1996 and slowly took over the business when second-generation family members, who were still working there, left the operation.

Uyehara said the factory provided him opportunities to travel and live in Taiwan and Japan. He believes the factory should be taken care of since it has taken care of his family.

Aloha Tofu. photo by Greg Viloria

The factory’s basic products include soft and firm tofu, Uyehara said. Their soft tofu is a juten-style, which means “the process is poured into the container as soymilk with a coaganant and it’s sealed, it coagulates into a tofu itself,” he explained.

Uyehara said the factory also makes natto (fermented soybean) and sells soymilk and yudofu (firm tofu before it gets pressed).

The company’s products haven’t changed since Uyehara’s father’s time in the factory, but the business has tried to “modernize, tried to make the products that we have a bit more suited towards the more modern tastes,” including offering a tofu dessert.

As the coronavirus pandemic hit, Uyehara said the factory was “extremely fortunate,” because as a food supplier, they were identified as an “essential business.” Employees understood guidelines regarding masking, hand washing and social distancing, he said. He said nobody caught the virus until the omicron variant hit and when people got sick, others stepped up. He said the factory never had to shut down because of the virus.

The factory’s “saving grace” was supermarkets staying open. Uyehara added that he and his wife helped some supermarkets restock because they were “overwhelmed” and sometimes unable to restock products themselves.

Uyehara said he is unlikely to pass the factory on to either of his two sons, as they are not interested in taking over the business. Alternatively, he could bring in outside management or an employee could purchase the company.

“The focus is really on what’s good for our employees, our partners and the community, how we can continue to serve the community with fresh tofu products,” Uyehara remarked.

Aloha Tofu Factory is located at 961 Akepo Lane, Honolulu. (808) 845-2669. https://aloha-tofu.com/.

Greg Viloria contributed to this article.

 

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