Aloha Tofu carries on tradition
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When Paul Uyehara stirs a vat of warm tofu, he senses when the texture reaches the right stage to pour into the block molds, a lesson learned from decades of family experience.
After checking on the tofu, the 43-year-old company president steps into his office above the factory line, sits down at a Mac computer and combines modern marketing techniques and business strategies to keep the family business thriving amid day-to-day challenges.
New recipes, an updated website and even a tofu haiku contest have helped in recent months to draw attention to the simple soy food.
Uyehara appreciates his core product but admits, "Tofu's not a glamorous sexy food."
Tofu-making starts early five days a week for Uyehara, who routinely gets to work by 3 a.m. and often stays until 6 p.m. On average, one ton of dried soybeans are soaked, ground, cooked, squeezed and formed into an average of 4,000 blocks each day.
Uyehara wasn't always convinced he wanted to make his living in tofu, but when he did, he was ready to make that commitment.
"When I joined, it was with my eyes wide open," he said. He is the largest tofu manufacturer in the Islands today.
In recent years, Uyehara has seen an upswing in customers who want to buy local. And the company has benefited from health-consciousness. Some people prefer the tofu when they see that it's made from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) soy beans.
"We can only compete on freshness and the quality of the product," he said.
And that approach is working with $2 million in annual sales for the past five years.
The bulk of sales are to retailers and produce companies, although customers do drive straight to the factory to buy soft and best-selling firm tofu, deep-fried and aburage. Some customers pick up items only available at the factory: soy milk and okara (basically the fiber or bran of soy that gets pulled out in the tofu-making.)
Customers say they prefer the fresh tofu flavor to that of Mainland imports or the shelf-stable soy product, although Uyehara knows that regularly scheduled sales bump up the demand as customers try to find fresh tofu at the best possible price.
The work hours are long but Uyehara appreciates the loyalty of customers and the cooperative spirit among his fellow tofu-makers. He suspects living on an island in the middle of the Pacific nurtures the practice of helping one another survive.
"We have good relationships with all the local manufacturers," he said, "so one company can ask another for bean or other products or even help fixing their machines.
"It's not a cutthroat type of business. We have our share, you have your share."
Hawai'i now has 12 tofu factories on four islands. He remembers the drop in sales in 1999 when a single study linked advanced brain aging to eating soybean curd, causing local tofu sales to plummet by as much as 80 percent. No other studies replicated the findings, and more health news has weighed in for tofu as a protein-rich food with a good health report card.
Recently, Uyehara has been studying a business management approach developed as a philosophy of life acquired through experience. Japanese business entrepreneur Kazuo Inamori created the philosophy on the premise of: "I believe this is the right way to live as a human being."
The family's first tofu shop was on Dillingham Boulevard near what is now Honolulu Community College. In 1964, Aloha Tofu moved to the Ala Moana Farmers Market, where the business grew until a fire wiped out the factory in 1966.
The family rebuilt the business and in 1976 opened the factory at 961 'Akepo Lane, where it still stands.
"I started working here when I was 11," Uyehara said, along with all of his cousins, helping to clean, store, package, "basically, whatever needed to be done."
In his family, the kids earned money from their jobs but spent summer vacation and other school breaks working instead of playing or at the beach. "Everybody hated it," Uyehara admits.
He graduated from Kaiser High School and attended the University of Puget Sound, where he majored in Asian studies.
"I guess I had pretty much decided I was going to do something else," he said. His studies took him to eight different countries in nine months. After he graduated, he spent two years in Taiwan and four years in Japan. "I was teaching English and studying the languages."
Uyehara got married in 1994, returned to Hawai'i two years later and began taking over the business from his father. His grandparents started the business and an aunt still works there.
The first generation was completely involved in the business, Uyehara said. Then also most of the second generation of four brothers and two sisters.
When he returned, three cousins and a sister were also working but they eventually left to do other things.
"The biggest challenge right now is to try to appeal to the next generation," Uyehara said.
"We try to emphasize the freshness of our product. We try to make it as traditional tasting as possible. The challenge is to attract this younger generation."
Providing tofu to chef Sam Choy has helped draw attention to Aloha Tofu and the variety of things you can do with tofu. The company is reaching out through the Web with a blog, Twitter and an updated site with recipes that include tofu pie, patties and a tofu loaf.
Look for new products based on tofu in the future, maybe more ready-to-eat foods designed for busy families: "They want convenience foods but they want to eat healthy."
Uyehara has worked to reduce his expenses by adapting new technology that include photovoltaic panels, solar water heating and solar fans.
The improvements have paid off already. "Last year, we cut about 45 percent of our electric bill and and won a federal Department of Energy award."
He and his wife have two sons, 12 and 14, but it's too early to tell if they'll take over the tofu business later. And that's just fine with their dad.
"I want to create a company that will survive no matter what," even if the next generation of his family doesn't share his passion, Uyehara said.