SAN JOSE, Calif. - The year was 1946. Japanese Americans who were sent to relocation camps during World War II were trying to re-establish themselves.
Chester Nozaki's grandfather started a small tofu shop on Jackson Street in San Jose's Japantown, naming it San Jose Tofu.
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On Saturday, after 71 years of operation, Nozaki and his wife Amy are closing the popular shop in order to retire and enjoy a vacation in Hawaii that they have always wanted to take.
Outside their shop on Friday, hundreds of sad customers queued with empty plastic containers to buy their last taste of tofu they realize they will never enjoy again.
They waited and waited, sometimes for an hour to get to the front door.
A few, such as San Jose resident Melissa Ikeda, held a gift for the Nozakis of a display box filled with origami cranes mounted on slender poles so they appeared to be flying. Many customers have been buying their tofu with their parents since they were children.
Loyal customers say they will never be able to find handmade tofu such as what the Nozakis made. The commercial varieties available in grocery stores are machine made.
The cognoscenti say that kind of tofu can't compare to handmade tofu.
The Nozakis say they no longer can find help to do the heavy lifting involved with making tofu the old-fashioned way. Large trays of tofu, before they are cut into retail sizes, can weigh 100 pounds.
Amy Nozaki says she has arthritis from placing her hands in ice cold water six days a week. A typical work day starts at 2:00 a.m.
In these final days, with long lines forming at 7:00 a.m. as they wait for the store to open at 9:00 a.m., they have been starting work at 11:00 p.m. the previous night to produce as much tofu as they can.
When they run out, they close the doors to disappointed customers. On this Friday, they sold out in three hours with about 20 or more customers still in line.
One customer was in tears as she walked out of San Jose Tofu with her purchase. The last opportunity to buy the Nozakis' tofu will be Saturday. Then it will close, although Chester Nozaki doesn't say forever.
The 61-year-old says he wants to try retirement for a while. He leaves open the possibility of starting a boutique-sized tofu shop in the future on a smaller scale. However, it is very demanding physical work.
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