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New O.C. Tofu Factory Curd Be a Gold Mine for Japanese Firm

March 13, 1997|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Shinto minister stood before the shrine, where several oversized sake bottles perched high on a stand. As a harpist softly played, he offered mulberry branches and white rice paper as symbols of purity, gratefulness and sanctity.

He bowed and clapped rhythmically, and prayed for good fortune to "the principal parent of this grand and glorious universe."

And so the nation's largest tofu factory was officially opened in Garden Grove on Wednesday.

Demand for the bean curd--a staple in Asia--is increasing in the United States because of Americans' fixation on healthy foods and a growing Asian population. Domestic retail sales climbed from $40 million in 1979 to more than $130 million in 1995, according to the Soyfoods Assn.

Best known in its native country as a maker of snack foods and curry powder, Osaka-based House Foods owns and operates the $21-million, 130,000-square-foot plant. The concern is betting that its U.S. tofu sales, until now about $10 million a year, will take off.

The new factory, which replaces House Foods' old plant in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district, will more than double its tofu production to 150,000 pounds a day.

"House is an old, established company in Japan," said Harry Tanikawa, the sales manager of its U.S. subsidiary, House Foods America Corp.

"We'd like to educate the American consumer. We've never totally taken the opportunity to do that, and now we can."

But at its carefully orchestrated opening ceremony, House Foods might also have prayed that its U.S. expansion will help it withstand pressures at home.

With about $1.7 billion in annual sales, it has historically had among the highest profit margins in the Japanese food industry, said Patricia Horvath, an analyst at UBS Ltd. in Tokyo.

But House Foods' profit has sagged the last couple of years because of increased competition, the Japanese recession and a weaker yen, which has made importing raw materials more expensive.

A staple of Asian diets for more than a thousand years, tofu is sometimes called "meat of the fields" or "meat without a bone."

In this country, tofu has been championed by vegetarians as a meat substitute because it's high in protein but low in fat and cholesterol. They've fought to overcome the typical American impression of tofu as soggy and tasteless by promoting its chameleon-like qualities, which allow it to be molded into a variety of forms and to take on the taste of anything it is mixed with.

Though the House Foods plant is fully automated with what company executives say is state-of-the-art equipment, the basic process for making tofu remains the same.

The soy beans are cleaned, then soaked in water for half a day to soften and expand them and remove their hulls. The beans are ground, cooked and squeezed to extract the "milk." The bean fiber is discarded for cattle feed, while the soy milk is mixed with a coagulant, calcium sulfate.

The pudding-like mixture is dropped into boxes, cut and placed in packages with water, then pasteurized. From a refrigerated warehouse, the packages are shipped to distributors, supermarkets and specialty grocers.

The Shinto ceremony, as traditional to the Japanese when opening a new business as the christening of ships is to Westerners, was meant to give the factory a proper send-off.

Rev. Alfred Y. Tsuyuki of the Konko Church of Los Angeles, who officiated, said he has blessed buildings all over the country. "These plants have made millions off of me," he quipped.

But House Foods was apparently leaving nothing to chance. Before guests were ushered away to a lunch of traditional Japanese fare and tofu lasagna, company executives engaged in a typically American gesture: They cut a ribbon.

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