RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Honda Tofu factory in Wahiawa was handed down to Dennis Honda, left, by his parents, Haruo and Josephine. Dennis still makes every block of tofu by hand.
Hard work takes toll on local tofu makers
Few hope to continue family traditions like the Honda Tofu factory
THE SCREEN DOOR swung open, and silver-haired Jeannette Kamisato stepped in, eager to hand over $1.30 for a block of tofu still warm from its first bath.
"I've been coming here for 50-something years," she said last week, basking in the comforting smell of steaming soy milk at the Honda Tofu factory. "I like it because it's fresh. He's always working so hard. They're so cheerful, family-oriented."
Wearing white rubber boots and a matching apron, Dennis Honda plunged his arm deep into a steel tank of water to grasp a creamy cube for her. He gently slipped it into a snug plastic packet and handed it to his wife, Dulcie, at the counter.
The couple was standing in the heart of their "factory" on Mango Street in Wahiawa, but that word doesn't quite fit, with its air of mechanization and mass production. This family business, now in its third generation, is an intimate homespun affair.
Every block of Honda Tofu enters the world through the scrubbed hands of Dennis Honda in this humble commercial kitchen, roughly the size of a living room. And yet, the local product is holding its own against an influx of cheaper mass-produced tofu from California.
Honda Tofu is sold by the piece to neighbors like Kamisato, but it also supplies supermarkets, restaurants and two modern corporate giants that have made homes on Oahu, Costco and Sam's Club.
"We're very small, very old-style," Dulcie Honda said, raising her voice over the sound of a mechanized grinder.
HER WIRY 53-year-old husband moves in a loop of constant motion, heaving buckets of golden soybeans into the grinder at the start of his one-man production line. Steam rises from a pressure cooker nearby before the milk is extracted from the roughage.
He steps over to stir the soy milk and coagulant with a long paddle, in a choreographed dance of strokes to give the tofu just the right texture.
Once it sets, he floats each huge white block of bean curd in a bathtub-sized tank, then deftly slices it with a knife into 40 neat rectangles that slowly sink to join their cousins.
Over and over he makes the circuit, until 800 to 1,000 blocks of bean curd are finished in a day. And so it goes, six days a week.
"There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into that one little block of tofu," Dulcie Honda said with a smile. "I think the last vacation we took was nine years ago. That's the drawback."
Founded in 1917 by Eizo and Tsuyo Honda, the tofu business was handed down to son Haruo and his wife, Josephine, then on to Dennis and Dulcie, who were sweethearts at Leileihua High School.
"We didn't want to encourage anyone to do this, because we knew how hard it was," said Josephine, 83, who raised five children. "It's so strenuous. No time for lunch break. It's not eight hours and quit. It's continuous."
SHE AND HARUO are never far away, since they live on the second floor, above the tofu factory. They still make small deliveries in the neighborhood, and Josephine helps out at the shop.
Haruo Honda used to sell his tofu from house to house. As a child, Dulcie Nakagawa harbored no ambitions of pursuing a career in soybeans, but the arrival of the tofu man always created a stir.
"As kids, it was a big deal for us," she recalled. "He would honk his horn, and we would run to find the 25 cents and go out and get the tofu. He'd have all these cans in the car. He would take a block of tofu and put it into your bowl."
She grew up to marry the tofu-maker's son, and nowadays it is Dulcie's and Dennis' job to make the rounds.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dennis Honda pulls tofu out of a large water tank for packaging. The labor-intensive business is gradually being replaced in Hawaii by mass-produced, pasteurized imports.
At 2:30 a.m. each day, the alarm clock jars the pair awake in their Wahiawa Heights home. They pack up the tofu in their vans and head out on deliveries, with Dennis peeling off about 8 a.m. to start production again.
In the afternoons, part-time employee Ron Meguro comes in to help package and seal the tofu.
Dulcie and Dennis then scrub down the shop, and she handles paperwork. They finally leave for home at about 7 p.m.
When they got married in 1977, the couple didn't anticipate taking over the family business. Dennis was working at the Legislature and Dulcie had a job at a building supply store. But then Haruo Honda was injured when a car hit him broadside while he was making deliveries. Dennis stepped up to the plate.
"You know what it's like -- a family tradition, and you kind of hate to see it go when there's actually able-bodied people who can keep it going," Dulcie Honda said. "I don't think we realized the long hours. It's just physically taxing."
She later joined him full-time at the shop.
"At least we get to see each other this way," her husband said with a grin.
They manage to make time for some fun, heading out to discover hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Recently they indulged in Alan Wong's to sample the haute cuisine he'd dreamed up for their humble bean curd.
THERE ARE STILL enough people who prefer the taste of fresh tofu to keep a handful of other producers alive in Hawaii, including Aala, Aloha, Hawaii, Kanai and Mrs. Cheng's. But the numbers keep dwindling.
Tofu that is made on the mainland -- pasteurized to extend its shelf life -- has been taking a chunk of the local market in recent years, although the heating process alters the taste and texture.
"There used to be like 14 or so (local tofu companies), but a lot of them have gone out of business," said Dulcie Honda. "The kids don't want to take it over. This generation, they don't want to work this hard."
The prospects for Honda Tofu staying in the family are dim. Ever since seeing "Beauty and the Beast" in elementary school, Dennis and Dulcie's daughter, Traci, has had her heart set on working in animation arts. Now 21, she attends Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
"We know it's probably going to end with us," Dulcie Honda said. "But we don't know when."