Hawaii Tofu closing shop after 38 years
Desire to retire, not competition, behind tofu maker’s decision to quit
A longtime maker of fresh handmade tofu is calling it quits in Wahiawa.
Maria and Herbert Nemoto, owners of Hawaii Tofu at 322 Palm St., said it was simply time to retire, after carrying out the third-generation business for more than 38 years.
The last day of production will be April 19.
"It's time to call it quits," said Maria Nemoto, 70. "My husband is tired and he wants to quit. I think we've had enough already."
Nemoto said she and Herbert, 72, were going to work in the yard, travel and visit their kids on the mainland.
They have four daughters and two sons, all of whom know how to make tofu. But their kids have other career interests and professions, and are not interested in carrying on the business.
Maria Nemoto, who is of Mexican descent, said she learned the art of making tofu from her mother-in-law, Haruko Nemoto, who in turn learned it from her father in Palolo.
"She started it from scratch," said Nemoto. "She used to sleep at the shop."
To her, making tofu was a craft, no different from shaping the perfect loaf of bread or aging a round of cheese just right. The secret, she said, was how much care you put into each block of tofu.
At one time Hawaii Tofu was a much larger operation, but when articles about possible adverse health effects of tofu surfaced in the late 1990s, the business slowed dramatically.
Since then the company has been a two-person operation. Nemoto said Hawaii Tofu produced small quantities for select clients -- only about 320 blocks per day.
The profit margin was slim, although the tofu sold for about $1.30 per block.
The list of clients ranged from Safeway to Foodland, Star Market, Times and small restaurants like Phuket Thai, Jimbo's, Highland Inn, Flamingo's, Korean Hibiscus BBQ and Mr. Ojisan.
In contrast, Honda Tofu, which is just a few blocks away, produces up to 1,000 blocks per day.
Dulce Honda, owner of Honda Tofu, said she was sad to hear the news. "In their heyday they (Hawaii Tofu) were doing really great," she said.
More competition from mainland brands, which sell tofu for much lower prices, has made it tough on small mom-and-pop operations that still make tofu by hand, Honda said.
For Honda Tofu, maintaining Costco Wholesale and Sam's Club accounts has helped keep the business going. But Honda is still small compared with bigger factories like Aloha Tofu Factory and Kanai Tofu Factory. And the work is labor-intensive, she said.
Some smaller manufacturers continue to survive, however, among them Aala Tofu and Mrs. Cheng's.