SAN JOSE – After more than seven decades of artisanal tofu from scratch, San Jose Japantown’s iconic San Jose Tofu is set to close on December 30th, leaving a community in mourning the loss of one of the most unique companies in Japanese America.
“We’re tired and while I can still walk we want to rest, tidy the house, fix the house and maybe take a trip,” says Chester Nozaki, the 61-year-old third generation owner of the dining establishment with his wife, Amy the Nichi told Bei Weekly.
“Everyone is tired.”
“When Amy and Chester gently announced that they were going to close the tofu-ya, I was utterly shocked …” said PJ Hirabayashi, co-founder of San Jose Taiko with husband Roy. “Eyes full of tears, it was like someone had died near me.”
“It’s an institution in San Jose and Japantown,” said Tamiko Rast of Rasteroids Design, who serves as the chairman of the board of the Japantown Business Association. “The Japantown community hasn’t even started to process how this will affect the neighborhood, but the loss will be felt by everyone.”
“The tofu shop is a community cultural gem and will be difficult to replace,” said John Ristow, chairman of the board of directors for the Japantown Community Congress in San Jose. “Food is such an important piece of cultural identity, and the nozakis-made tofu really adds to the cultural and historical fabric of San Jose’s Japantown.”
“(San Jose Tofu is) possibly one of the most unique and historic companies in not just Japantown but all of San Jose,” said Reiko Iwanaga, event planner and chief choreographer, San Jose Obon. “It’s always interesting that I see people from outside the area who just come for the tofu.”
Rooted in the community
San Jose Tofu was founded in 1946 by Nozaki’s grandfather. “When Dad took over, Grandfather came to help and talked to customers about barber shops during the transition,” he said.
Chester started early in the family business when he was nine years old delivering tofu in a “little red cart” to places like Dobashi Market, which became a little embarrassing as he neared his teenage years. “It was rough, but it was fun.”
Nozaki’s integration into the family business deepened in 1981 when he worked there full time. Despite aspirations as an industrial engineering student at San Jose State University, his father Takeshi convinced him to get into the tofu business.
“My father lost quite a few accounts,” Nozaki said. “I walked around Japantown to speak to people I grew up with” to try to get accounts back. “I told them I would be there making deliveries. I got pretty much all of the accounts back. “
When his father retired in 2000, Chester Nozaki took over the full reign of San Jose Tofu.
New products have come and gone over the years, and some never made it through the trial period. Nozaki’s mother got older for a while (dried tofu skins used in Inarizushi) and they started making soy milk in the 1980s, with Amy and her associate perfecting it in the 1990s.
But the experimental tofu ice cream never made it into the store. “We just ate it. It was too much work. “
In its heyday, the family business had four employees, including Nozaki’s mother. It ends at three, including an esteemed 27-year-old employee who started with Nozaki’s father.
Decision to close
The decision to close apparently was not taken lightly. Although sad to lose, the Nozaki family is omnipresent for their years of dedication to high quality artisanal tofu.
Ristow characterized the community’s reaction as “a bit of shock and sadness, but understanding of the family’s situation”.
According to Nozaki, he and his wife Amy were considering a summer closure. “We only pulled the trigger at the last moment.”
They started telling people “very slowly” after Thanksgiving and asking them to keep it “still” and told close customers on December 1st.
Then, after the weekend, they became more public about the decision on December 4th.
“They told me to reconsider,” said Nozaki. “(They say) there are other ways to cut business hours. We’ve all thought about that before.
“There really is no free time for us as a family.”
According to Nozaki, the peak consumption of the San Jose tofu he remembers was in the late 1980s and sales have been declining for the past five years. “Tofu has gotten relatively expensive for the elders,” he said, noting that the price of the handcrafted San Jose tofu is $ 2.25 per block.
With the further development of the machines, the competition was a bit tough today.
“These days … machine-made tofu costs a dollar,” Nozaki said. “We cannot order in large quantities like the big markets.”
Its customer base demographics have changed, Nozaki said, as the once large Nikkei customer base has been replaced with loyal customers of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese origins. “Millennials don’t really get in here,” he adds.
However, declining sales are not a major factor in the decision to close the company, Nozaki said. The fact that the San Jose Tofu building is housed also wasn’t bought by the owners of the Gombei restaurant next door, who have also started selling their own brand of tofu in recent years.
It mainly came down to physical “wear and tear,” he said.
Appreciation of the community
As the shock and sadness of the decision to slowly close gradually subside, a growing sense of appreciation for the Nozakis grows in parallel.
“In a world of profit generation and tremendous pressure to cut corners and automate production, the San Jose Tofu Co. has recognized itself as a precious landmark of San Jose Japantown,” said Ryan Kawamoto, managing director of Yu-Ai Quay. a Japanese-American senior service agency in San Joses Japantown. “The graduation … is a devastating loss that will be felt by our entire community, including the senior Yu-Ai Kai adult participants who have had the privilege of enjoying such wonderful and fresh tofu for many years.”
Peggy Furukawa, senior citizen of Yu-Ai Kai, said she would miss going there every Friday to order tofu for the karaoke club potluck on Friday night.
“The work they do as artisans has always been inspiring and a source of pride for San Jose Taiko as an ambassador for this community,” said Franco Imperial, artistic director of San Jose Taiko, whose group performs across the country. “There’s just no substitute for what they’ve added to Japantown as … a provider of something so delicious that is so identifiable with this neighborhood.
Over the years, so many taiko guests outside of town would pick up tofu in Japantown before heading back to LA or any other city. When I first came to San Jose Taiko many years ago, I didn’t quite understand it. Now I realize they weren’t just bringing back containers of tofu and water. They brought home containers of love, pride, and the taste of a place. This was a unique treasure that could not be found anywhere else. “
Richard Kogura, a board member of the Japantown Community Congress in San Jose, shared with the Wilters how lucky they were to have a tofu shop in their community. “Those of us who live in Japantown have always eaten fresh tofu and never bought the ‘packaged’ tofu – it doesn’t taste the same,” said Kogura, whose family has run the Kogura Company for decades. “(It is) the same as what our grandparents ate. Get a taste of the history of SJ Japantown with San Jose Tofu. “
The tofu was also well received by Japanese newcomers.
“In my opinion, SJ Tofu is keeping the old-fashioned way of making tofu,” said Japantown-based Yoko Kobashi, who was born and raised in Tottori Prefecture, Japan. “I like the homemade tofu texture. It’s exactly the same taste … when I was a kid in Japan. “
Kobashi, a local Japanese language school teacher, said she will miss the long lines on New Year’s Eve when most customers bring their own containers. Her husband Tsukasa, the branch manager of a Japanese company, called it “authentic Japanese tofu” and discovered that it also makes “delicious okara,” a tofu by-product.
As the community ponders where to get their tofu after December 30th, the Nozakis envision a well-deserved break.
“I didn’t get the chance to go on much vacation,” Nozaki said, noting that he would like to visit places that he had only seen as close as his television. “I’ve never been to Hawaii. I only see it on TV. I would like to see Japan. I would like to see Taiwan. “
So why not just take a longer vacation instead of throwing in the towel?
“The workload triples on the first day,” said Nozaki, who had had back problems since he was 16. I would be in constant pain. I would take any kind of pain reliever just to walk. “
Nozaki, who makes most of the deliveries to Suruki and Takahashi markets in San Mateo to the north, said he also has knee problems and is “falling apart”.
He realizes that because of his age, he may have to take a part-time or full-time job. “I can’t claim Social Security or Medicare just yet,” Nozaki said.
“Japantown is losing a wonderful contribution, but we’re going to move on 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 really sorry that they 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 my mind. We thought about it, ”he said. “I do not really know.”
Selling the business, he thought, would mean staying to train people to make the artisanal tofu. “That would be something I wouldn’t look forward to,” he said. “I don’t want to break my back doing this. Could be.”
Located at 175 Jackson Street in Japantown, San Jose, San Jose Tofu is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (408) 292-7026.