The menu from last year’s Tofu Day Dinner, held at Gazen Bar & Grill.
The menu from last year’s Tofu Day Dinner, held at Gazen Bar & Grill.

 Tofu Making 2.0

Jodie Chiemi Ching
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Question: How do you transform a 67-year-old mama-san and papa-san business like tofu making into an exciting and relevant 21st century enterprise? Answer: By being innovative and persistent and by throwing heart and soul behind your craft.

That is precisely what Aloha Tofu owners Paul and Misa Uyehara are doing to keep their nearly seven decades-old tofu-making operation thriving beyond traditional tofu products, such as firm and soft tofu blocks, fried tofu, aburage skins and okara (soybean meal). They have instead been experimenting with new and fun ways to enjoy tofu through their Tofu Town restaurant in Iwilei, tofu-inspired workshops and by taking their tofu innovations out into the community.

Paul, especially, understands the challenges of being a “successor business” in Hawai‘i, passed on from generation to generation.

“Although Aloha Tofu had a strong brand awareness and loyalty, thanks to the efforts of the previous generations, the tofu industry itself has faced a relatively stagnant market,” he said. Other tofu factories have shut down, mainly due to a lack of successor owners, Uyehara said, noting that Aloha Tofu is today one of only three fresh tofu producers on O‘ahu. But, Hawai‘i is also facing stiff competition from Mainland manufacturers whose products promise a longer shelf life and are competitive in terms of price.

To counter the competition, Aloha Tofu has had to come up with creative ideas and innovative ways of implementing them.

“Innovation and creativity almost become necessary to the survival of businesses, mostly due to the changing demographics,” Uyehara said. “Aloha Tofu’s loyal customers are disappearing and we need to make stronger appeals to the next generation of tofu eaters. Why should they eat tofu when there are so many other choices for proteins out there?” he asks.

The answer to that question lies in the unique ways the company shares its love for tofu with the community.

Aloha Tofu Town

One of the first opportunities presented itself when Aloha Tofu decided to spread its wings in a dining space just around the corner from the Dole Cannery theaters. The space had previously been used as bakery and prep room. “We initially did not have plans to use it at first, but it seemed like a waste of space, so we decided to implement the concept of Aloha Tofu Town,” explained Paul.

All of the dishes at Aloha Tofu Town are tofu-inspired. A different tofu entrée is offered Monday through Thursday, with an Aloha Friday tofu bento closing off the week. Besides the entrees, Aloha Tofu Town offers oboro tofu (soft, custardy form of firm tofu taken before pressing), tofu poke, musubi (riceballs) with sesame and soybeans (tofu is made from soybeans) and other dishes daily. The company is also known for its delicious tofu mousse dessert, which comes in a variety of flavors: chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, mango, coffee caramel and cheesecake. And their popular Okara Cream Puffs are available on Mondays and Thursdays.

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If you would like to attend future Aloha Tofu workshops and events, contact the Uyeharas through the Aloha Tofu website, www.aloha-tofu.com and click on the “Contact” tab, or email them at ar@alohatofu.com.

Jodie Ching is a freelance writer and blogger who also works for her family’s accounting firm in Kaimukï. She has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and is a past recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Foundation scholarship.

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