How do you know it’s time to quit? This wasn’t an easy question for Chester and Amy Nozaki of the San Jose Tofu Company. They’re the third generation of Nozakis to run this tiny storefront in San Jose’s Japantown.
“The wear and tear started to catch up with us,” Chester says, rubbing the small of his back. “It started to get to the point where our health is a lot more important than making as much money as possible.”
Chester’s 61 years old and Amy’s 59, but they say all these years of lugging 50 pound sacks of soybeans — and heavy pots filled with soybeans and water — has taken its toll.
“We are getting old. It’s too much physical work for us,” says Amy, who often starts in the kitchen at two in the morning. “It’s so sad to say goodbye, but nothing lasts forever.”
Back in 2007, reporter Lita Martinez profiled San Jose Tofu for the KQED program “Pacific Time.” Listen here.
Amy married Chester Nozaki 25 years ago, so she hasn’t put in quite as many hours as Chester has. He grew up in the store his father ran before him, and his grandfather before that. Amy was part-time until Chester’s dad stopped working in 2007.
Chester’s dad made him takeover the family business. “Yeah, I was dragged into it. My dad convinced me not to continue with my college education and help out, because it’s a family business.”
They have two grown children, but neither of them wants to make tofu. “You know, we don’t want to put any pressure on the kids. It’s just going to end here,” Chester says.
Just the same, San Jose is sorry to see them go.
A steady stream of locals pop into the store to offer their rueful congratulations, and ask if there’s any tofu left. The store will stay open until the end of the month, but so many people are keen to get one last taste, the Nozakis run out of tofu daily around 11 a.m.
Most tofu makers use machines now, that can make up to 300 tofu bricks an hour. The Nozakis make 42 — and they use no preservatives, so their tofu lasts only two to three days. But the tofu melts in your mouth.
I ask about their favorite preparations. Chester likes mabo tofu: tofu in a garlicky, spicy meat sauce. Amy likes to eat it with a little finely chopped green onion, ground ginger and soy sauce. “You can really taste the tofu flavor.”
They do make enough to send some tofu to Santo Market in San Jose, Marukai Market in Cupertino, local Nijiya Markets, Berkeley Bowl and Tokyo Fish. That is, until the end of December.
Maybe local hipsters will want to revive the ancient tradition. If they’re hoping for a tutorial from the Nozakis, they’ll have to wait till the couple gets back from their first extended vacation in living memory.