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Historic Tofu House Readies to Close Shop

Lines go out the door as customers are willing to wait for a last chance to buy tofu that only Chester and Amy Nozaki still make by hand. (Photo by BRAD SHIRAKAWA)

By JOHN SAMMON, Nikkei West

SAN JOSE – After 71 years as a fixture in San Jose’s Japantown, the San Jose Tofu Company is closing its doors at the end of this month — to the consternation of long-time customers who will miss the ready supply of bean curd delicacy, as well as those who offer owner Chester Nozaki congratulations.

“Some people are upset and give us all sorts of alternatives how we could continue in the business, but they’re not in our shoes,” Nozaki said.

If the truth be known, Nozaki said he and his wife Amy have grown a little weary of the heavy lifting of buckets filled with soybeans into vats and the long hours in running the business, and look forward to perhaps temporary retirement and the pursuit of other interests.

“I don’t have any plans for the moment. I just intend to take it easy for a while,” Nozaki, 61, said. “I’ll be probably looking for another job later but I want to spend quality time with my wife and family — doing things that up until now we haven’t had time to do.”

For lovers of tofu, a food dish consisting of bean curd cultivated by coagulating soy milk and pressing the curds into square white blocks, the little shop located at 175 Jackson St. in San Jose’s Japantown had become a seemingly permanent icon of an authentic Japanese dish.

The business was the longest-running maker of fresh tofu in the Bay Area.

“This place is so small that if you had eight customers in here, they would all be in the way,” Nozaki said.

Amy Nozaki prepares a wooden box that holds liquid tofu. It will cool and solidify, then be cut into cubes by Amy’s own hand. (Photo by BRAD SHIRAKAWA)

The business has been family-run since Nozaki’s grandfather opened it back in 1946. In the early 1950s it was handed over to Nozaki’s father, Takeshi, who took over at the age of 17, and then Chester in 2000. The elder Nozaki today is 85.

“My ancestors came from the Hiroshima area of Japan,” Nozaki said. “All we do is make tofu here. We have been selling tofu for three generations.”

Nozaki said one key to making tofu is to press out the excess water.

“We have containers lined with cheese cloth and we place the bean curd in there and squeeze out the water,” Nozaki said. “It’s not super smooth. You can tell the difference between machine-made tofu, which is more solid in texture. Ours is more porous.

“We’re not a restaurant and you can’t say we’re a market,” he added. “You tell us how many boxes (of tofu) you want and then you’re out the door.”

Chester Nozaki hands over a container of fresh tofu to a customer. (Photo by BRAD SHIRAKAWA)

Although he didn’t run a delivery business, Nozaki would bring tofu by for neighbors who were elderly and unable to get around or for people with special needs.

“I have a few neighbors and I’ll walk over to their house and bring them some tofu because they are handicapped,” he said. “One of my neighbors is a war veteran. We make special deliveries for people like that.”

The Nozaki couple has two grown children, Ryan and Jessica, but they are pursuing their own careers and not interested in selling tofu.

Nozaki said over the years the experience has been both good and bad.

“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and we had some great times, but some were rough times, too.”

Nozaki said producing authentic tofu is a “labor-intensive” operation. During his tenure he would start producing the next day’s batch the night before — often arriving for the start of a business day at 5 a.m. or earlier.

For 27 years he has had one faithful employee, who declines to be identified because the humble helper doesn’t want the publicity.

Nozaki said he thanks all his customers who have stuck with him for years.

“We’ve had loyal customers in the Bay Area, Monterey, from San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and Sacramento. We’ll miss seeing a lot of people,” he said.

The spot was rented for all that time and Nozaki said he doesn’t know of a future tenant or who will occupy the space after he leaves. Saturday, Dec. 30 will be the last day of operation.

Nozaki downplays the idea his tofu business has been an iconic link to the past for the community.

“People tell me it’s an institution with a legacy, but I see it as a small family business that existed for decades,” he said.

San Jose Tofu is located on Jackson Street between 5th and 4th streets in San Jose Japantown and can be reached at (408) 292-7026. Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or until sold out. Closed Sunday.

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