Food & Drink

Family closes two-generation Sacramento tofu business

Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi stand next to the sign that once marked the 6th Street location of their Sacramento Tofu Co.
Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi stand next to the sign that once marked the 6th Street location of their Sacramento Tofu Co.

For decades, the Kunishi family were faithful servants to soybeans. Because a livelihood based on fresh tofu means the soybeans are always calling, ready to be rinsed and soaked, then pressed into a thick milk that ultimately transforms into soft tofu. Holiday dinners, birthday celebrations, a much-needed evening of rest – much of this often played secondary to the high-maintenance needs of the beans.

But in turn, the soybeans were good to the Kunishis. The family’s Sacramento Tofu Co. nourished generations of Sacramentans with its freshly made products. And the business nurtured its owners, one bushel of beans at a time, providing for college educations and food on their own tables.

Now, the tofu is gone. owners Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi have retired and thus ended a 68-year-run of the family business. Sacramento Tofu Co. ceased production at the end of October. An Oakland-based business, Hodo Soy Beanery, will take over the Sacramento company’s south-area facility on Dec. 1.

On a quiet recent morning, the remnants of a once-bustling family business were packed into moving boxes or piled around what used to be the heart of its production area. Not only is a signature Sacramento food fading away, but a beloved piece of local food history as well.

“After all these years, I think that a little bit I feel bad that I have to shut it down,” said Alvin Kunishi. “And then I can’t provide good tofu for the people who appreciate it. But nobody wanted to take it over. I tell them what they have to go through, and they lose interest right away.”

On a wall of the company’s front business office, Kunishi, 71, keeps a reminder of the business’ roots. A small picture frame holds a fading color shot of the company’s second factory, a humble space on Sixth Street near Southside Park. The tofu company was housed on the ground floor; the Kunishi family lived upstairs.

Sakara-fu Tofu-ten – translated as “Sacramento Tofu Co.” – was founded in 1947 by Alvin’s late father, Hiroshi “Tom” Kunishi. The factory’s original location was on Fifth Street near Sacramento’s Japan Town, where the Kunishi family settled after World War II. The elder Kunishi had met his wife, Michiko, at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, and son Alvin was born inside the confines of the camp – “a barbed-wire baby,” he says.

Post-WWII needs

Hiroshi Kunishi, who received a business education in Japan as a young man, spent a year picking hops in the Sloughhouse area after returning from Tule Lake. He soon founded the Sacramento Tofu Co. with his brother-in-law and a family friend, sensing they could fulfill a primary food need in the local Japanese community. The business moved to the Southside Park area in the mid-1950s, and Hiroshi Kunishi ultimately took over the burgeoning business.

“There was always a need for tofu in the Asian population,” said Alvin Kunishi. “It was easy to make but took a lot of work. One person or two people could only make so much. Everyone in the Japanese community, they all ate tofu, so there’s always not enough. My father figured he could provide enough for them.”

The company specialized in a style of fresh tofu that remained consistent over the decades. The rich tofu milk was created in-house, and no pasteurization entered the process, which could strip the tofu of some flavor. Unlike the benign blocks of some mass-produced tofu, this Sacramento version highlighted a deep soybean essence.

It’ll be the first holiday season since President Harry S Truman was in office that this local tofu won’t be available for feasting.

“Oh everybody’s sad, especially this time of year when New Year’s is coming up,” said Russell Oto, general manager of Oto’s Marketplace. “We’ve tried many different tofus, and Sacramento Tofu Co. is still the best in our opinion. It’s not as gritty or chalky as some others out there. When you slide it on your tongue, you can tell the difference.”

Unexpected livelihood

Alvin Kunishi didn’t expect that his own livelihood would be defined by block after block of tofu. Though he grew up making deliveries for the family business and helping with odd jobs, Kunishi graduated from San Francisco State and worked as a nuclear engineer at the former Mare Island Navy shipyard in Vallejo. His wife, Dorothy, was a schoolteacher in the Bay Area.

But beyond his aspirations as an engineer, Kunishi was a dutiful son. His father was ready to retire after more than two decades in the tofu business, but didn’t want the company to go away. In 1978, the Sacramento Tofu Co. passed its leadership to a second generation.

“I was the only son in the family, and there really was no other option,” said Kunishi.

The learning curve was steep for Kunishi. He’d never made tofu but was tutored in the process by Takeo Hiroshige, one of the company’s original partners. Kunishi’s engineering background turned out to be a great asset. Beyond all the variables that need to be controlled in tofu production – keeping the water temperature consistent, adding the right amount of sea salts as a coagulant, cooling the tofu properly – managing all the machinery was a core part of the operations.

“It’s very difficult for someone to learn,” said Kunishi. “It takes years to know the machinery, what wears out, and if you have a problem you know where to look.”

Sacramento Tofu Co. grew to the point it processed some 240,000 pounds of soybeans a year at its south-area facility, which opened in 1991. That was a fair amount for a family business, enough to service regional restaurants and markets, but still considered a mom-and-pop shop in terms of its production size.

The work of making tofu meanwhile stayed relentless. Running the factory was nearly a seven-day-a-week operation, with most Sunday nights dedicated to soaking and rinsing the beans and preparing for the week’s production.

“There was rarely a day off – no weekends, no nothing,” said Dorothy Kunishi, who helped run the business. “Nobody ever saw him when my daughter was going to school. They didn’t know he existed.”

The next phase

The Kunishis had mulled retirement for the past five years. Longtime customers who were members of the Japanese American community were dying, and the newer generations didn’t have the same appetite for tofu. Despite the marathon-like work, Kunishi said the company was lucky to clear $600 a month in profits.

The Kunishi’s only child, 35-year-old daughter Lauren, has meanwhile pursued a career in speech pathology. She says her parents let her find her own path, instead of pushing her into the tofu business.

“I think how much I’d struggle if I were to take up the business, seeing how much my mother and father take care of here,” said Lauren Kunishi, while taking a break from helping her parents clean out the business. “It would be a major hardship to call upon them if the machinery broke down. I don’t think they’d get much of a retirement.”

The Kunishi family still own their south Sacramento facility and will be the landlords for Hodo Soy Beanery. The Oakland-based company produces tofu on a national scale, including servicing the Chipotle restaurant chain, Whole Foods, Costco and other large clients. Its Oakland facility produces more than 20,000 pounds of tofu daily – about the amount the Kunishi’s company made in a month.

Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo, says the Sacramento facility will employ up to 50 workers. Tofu will be pastuerized but through modern equipment and techniques, and Tsai believes it will still contain the pronounced soybean essence that traditional customers prefer.

“We see ourselves as a next-generation producer,” said Tsai. “Alvin and Dorothy and their parents are essentially the first wave. Our process is not dissimilar, but we just remove some of the heavy lifting that Alvin (endured). We love their story and the legacy they left behind.”

Meanwhile, as the sun sets on Sacramento Tofu Co., you can see the need for sleep in Alvin Kunishi’s drooping eyes. No more 4 a.m. wake-up calls, no more Sunday nights at the factory soaking beans. But in the end, with a bit of melancholy in his voice, he knows the business of tofu was a blessing.

“I always think back to what I could have done better,” said Kunishi. “But we’ve been able to sustain a family. We were able to put (Lauren) through school. We’re thankful for that. Now, we just want to fade away into the night.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias